Dozens of candidates are entering races for seats in critical states across the country as both Democrats and Republicans confront the prospect of crowded primary fields ahead of next year’s midterm elections.
In years past, party leaders have stepped in to anoint a favored candidate, bestowing the title of presumptive nominee on a contender who appeared straight from central casting.
But this year, the democratization of both fundraising and the ability to communicate with voters has robbed each side of much of their power to influence primary voters. The result has been a mad dash to enter the races that will decide which party controls the Senate in the next Congress.
Republicans are a decade removed from the Tea Party movement, which helped reduce the influence of the national party over contested primary elections — a factor that contributed to flawed Republican nominees losing winnable seats in states like Nevada, Delaware, Colorado, Missouri and elsewhere in past cycles.
But for Democrats, the phenomenon of losing control is new.
Consider Pennsylvania, where Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D) entered the race to replace retiring Sen. Pat Toomey (R) in early February. His stature as a national media darling with an ability to raise huge sums of money might have once scared others out of the race. Instead, the flood of Democratic candidates has mounted.
Less than two weeks after Fetterman entered the race, state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (D), a 30-year-old who represents a seat in Philadelphia, entered the race. So did Montgomery County Commission chair Val Arkoosh (D). Rep. Conor Lamb (D), who shares Fetterman’s eastern Pennsylvania base, has made moves toward running. So has Reps. Madeleine Dean (D) and Chrissy Houlahan (D), both of whom hold suburban Philadelphia-area seats.
The same situation has played out for Democrats in North Carolina, Wisconsin and Florida, where candidates who might have been seen as front-runners in the past have been unable to dissuade other contenders from jumping into high-profile Senate contests.
“There is sort of a flattening out of the party hierarchy,” said Mark Nevins, a Pennsylvania-based Democratic strategist who is unaligned in his state’s primary so far. “We are currently living in an historic age in which we are coming to a reckoning on issues of race and justice and disenfranchisement, and politics reflects that.”
Martha McKenna, a former top political adviser to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), said candidates are informed and inspired by recent history. After Barack Obama went from the state legislature to the White House in four years, a rush of state legislators or nonpoliticians — Jeff Merkley in Oregon, Kay Hagan in North Carolina, Al Franken in Minnesota — ran for and won Senate seats.
Candidates who might have once stayed on the sidelines because they did not fit what had been seen as the ideal profile now feel freer to make their case. They may hope to emulate the viral fundraising capability demonstrated by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) or Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). Or they may look to Sens. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) and Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.), neither of whom fit the stereotype of a Senate candidate in a conservative state, as inspiration.
“After you come off a cycle or two, 2018 and then 2020 when Biden wins, people can feel victory, and people who want to serve in higher office can see a path. We’ve had important victories in the last couple of cycles, so people can see a path to victory for themselves,” McKenna said.
After a string of bad results in the last several cycles in states like North Carolina, Iowa, Maine and Pennsylvania, where candidates favored by the DSCC lost general elections against Republicans, the national party’s grip on the primary process has waned.
“The [state] party organization wants to play a much more vital role in selecting their nominee than having [Senate Majority Leader] Chuck Schumer deciding who their nominee is going to be and putting millions of dollars in. That did not work out so well in 2018,” said Brad Crone, a longtime North Carolina Democratic strategist.
The DSCC has not issued any endorsements or signaled favorites in any races this year, though the committee does not plan to take options off the table.
“At this stage we are carefully assessing the candidate fields, keeping open lines of communication with candidates and working to build the infrastructure we’ll need to win the general election,” a committee spokesperson said in an email.
In 2018, the top super PAC aimed at electing Democrats spent millions of dollars in the primary on behalf of former state Sen. Cal Cunningham (D), a moderate white man whose profile seemed tailor-made to a slowly liberalizing electorate. Cunningham lost a race in which he polled well ahead, after acknowledging an affair.
Now, North Carolina Democrats face their own crowded primary: Former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley (D), a Black woman, is seen as the front-runner against state Sen. Jeff Jackson (D) and former state Sen. Erica Smith (D), who ran against Cunningham two years ago.
In Florida, Rep. Val Demings (D) said this week she would challenge Sen. Marco Rubio (R). The night before her announcement, Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D) appeared in Tallahassee, hundreds of miles from her district, as she lays groundwork for her own bid.
In Wisconsin, Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson (D) entered the race against Sen. Ron Johnson (R) even before the 2020 elections. He was joined by Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry (D), a former aide in Obama’s White House, and state Treasurer Sarah Godlewski (D). Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes (D) is also said to be exploring the race.
Nelson, 45, is the old man in the race; the other three are all under 40.
“Any one of these candidates if they strike the right chord and are hitting the right notes in their campaign are going to be able to put together the resources to run a primary campaign, and once you’ve got the nomination in our state at least you’ve got a 50-50 coin flip chance of serving in the United States Senate,” said Joe Zepecki, a Wisconsin-based Democratic strategist. “All of that has made it easier for people who do not fit the historical profile of a United States senator think, why not me? And that is a good thing.”
Republicans know the feeling after a decade of Tea Party-inspired candidates — including, to a degree, former President Trump — upended the GOP’s carefully laid plans.
“I think the problem was disenchantment with the Wall Street bailout at the end of 2008. That’s really what launched the Tea Party in winter of 2009 and was the tipping point of changing our primary axis from ‘who’s most conservative’ to ‘who’s more outsider,’” said Brad Todd, a longtime Republican strategist whose clients include Sens. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.). “It became a total replacement framework and you saw it instantly on blogs like RedState and new radio shows like Mark Levin. They filled the information gap previously filled by party leader cues.”
This year, Republicans have a new set of competitive primaries ahead. At least five prominent Republicans are running to replace retiring Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio); half a dozen candidates of varying prominence are already in the race to succeed Toomey in Pennsylvania; three are running to replace retiring Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) in a field that is certain to grow; and three are running for retiring Sen. Roy Blunt’s (R-Mo.) seat while at least three more take hard looks at the race.
Most of the Republican candidates have kicked off their campaigns by tying themselves closely to Trump. Democrats say Trump has been an inspiration for candidates on their side, too — groups dedicated to recruiting more women, minorities and young people to run all saw a surge of interest after Trump’s 2016 election win, a surge that is fueling some of the interest in this year’s contests.