In primaries, a spotlight on the unhealed wounds of 2020 - and the ongoing divisions in America

·6 min read

WASHINGTON – If the latest primaries are any indication, the wounds from the 2020 election and the violent insurrection that followed it still run deep – and figure to get worse during the 2022 midterm elections.

Republicans who promoted former president Donald Trump's myth of a "stolen election" prospered in Tuesday's primaries, though there are questions as to how effective those protests will be in a general election against Democratic candidates.

Democrats, including President Joe Biden, say the concept of free and fair elections itself is on the ballot and Trump-style Republicans are threats to it.

“The American experiment, the democracy, is in a danger like it hasn’t been in my lifetime,” Biden said this week during a visit to Buffalo to memorialize the victims of last week's mass shooting.

Biden and the Democrats vowed to campaign on this issue, although history says the minority party tends to do well in midterm elections, and this year, that's the Republicans.

Pa., NC, Idaho primaries relitigate Trump's 2020 loss

State Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, a Republican candidate for governor of Pennsylvania, speaks at a primary night election gathering in Chambersburg, Pa., May 17.
State Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, a Republican candidate for governor of Pennsylvania, speaks at a primary night election gathering in Chambersburg, Pa., May 17.

Republican voters spoke with a fractured voice in the primaries Tuesday. Some opted for more traditional conservatives such as Gov. Brad Little in Idaho. Others chose candidates who assumed Trump's mantle of contesting the former president's 2020 defeat.

Doug Mastriano, a state senator and outspoken election denier, won the Republican nomination for governor of Pennsylvania, despite protests from other GOP members that he is too extreme to win a general election.

His loyalty to the former president helped him win a base election in a crowded field and secured Trump's endorsement over the weekend.

"There is no one in Pennsylvania who has done more, or fought harder, for Election Integrity than" Mastriano, Trump said in his endorsement statement.

Pa. Sen. Doug Mastriano: What we know about his ties to Jan. 6

The partisans who vote in a primary are different from the range of voters who cast ballots in a general election. A candidate can win a primary by appealing to a narrow set of the electorate, but that won't guarantee success in a general race, according to Berwood Yost, a pollster and political analyst at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Mastriano, who won 1 in 5 Republicans in the Pennsylvania primary, "has to broaden his appeal to attract suburban voters, who may see some of his positions as extreme," Yost said. "So far, he hasn’t seemed willing to moderate any of his positions."

During the campaign, Mastriano called for a "forensic investigation" of Biden's victory, claiming that "millions of Pennsylvanians have serious doubts about the accuracy of the 2020 general election.”

There was no evidence of voter fraud in Pennsylvania in 2020 when Biden won the state by about 80,000 votes.

Mastriano said he wouldn’t have certified Biden’s victory in Pennsylvania if he’d been governor in 2020. If elected governor, he said, he would require all voters to re-register in 2024.

Election subversion? Donald Trump and allies look for new ways to challenge votes

After Mastriano's primary win, the independent Cook Political Report moved the Pennsylvania governor's race from "toss-up" to "leans Democrat."

State Attorney General Josh Shapiro, the Democratic nominee, said Mastriano would "restrict the vote and spread conspiracy theories."

Rep. Ted Budd, who won the Republican nomination for the Senate in North Carolina, has also questioned Biden's victory – and has Trump's endorsement, a move that boosted his standing in pre-election polls.

Budd's Democratic opponent, former North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley, wants to make abortion rights a major issue, planning to talk about Republican morality.

“In this moment, we have the power to restore our values to Washington,” Beasley said.

Beasley is trying to become North Carolina's first Black woman senator. Candidates of color in both parties have been major themes this election year.

Election SOS: In 2022 midterms, a new 'Big Lie' battleground: secretary of state elections

Trump: a bane or boon to Republican primary winners?

Former President Donald Trump, election conspiracies and the Jan. 6 insurrection play big roles in the 2022 midterms.
Former President Donald Trump, election conspiracies and the Jan. 6 insurrection play big roles in the 2022 midterms.

Trump's endorsement is not a sure thing, as borne out by Tuesday's results.

Two Trump candidates – Rep. Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina and Idaho Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin – went down to defeat. Dr. Mehmet Oz, a Trump-backed Senate candidate in Pennsylvania, faces a recount in his tight battle with businessman David McCormick.

For the Republicans, it all boils down to Trump – a bane or a boon to the GOP, depending on which race you're talking about.

Sarah Longwell, executive director of the Republican Accountability Project, a group of conservatives aligned against the former president, said Trump "was" and "is" a "cancer on the Republican Party."

"There was a time I thought you could remove him and save the party. But looking at these GOP primaries – not to mention the last 18 months – it’s clear Trump has metastasized across the party," Longwell said. "And it can’t be saved."

Trump is tied to two of the most divisive issues in America – abortion and Jan. 6 – which will take center stage next month.

On June 9, a House committee investigating the attack on the Capitol will begin hosting at least nine hearings, including some in prime time, that will detail the events leading up to the insurrection in 2021 when a mob of Trump supporters angry about the results of the election invaded the Capitol as lawmakers met to certify Biden's victory.

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to issue an abortion decision that could preserve or overturn abortion rights. A draft opinion that leaked at the beginning of the month suggests the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, which legalized abortion, will be overturned.

How both of those situations play out could determine the trajectory of the general election, Yost said.

As the party that controls Congress and the White House, Democrats face historical headwinds made worse by rising inflation.

"Republicans should be well positioned to win," Yost said. "But there are issues that could change enthusiasm."

It's unclear what effect nine hearings about Jan. 6 will have on the electorate. They are unlikely to move Democrats or Republicans to change their opinions, but they may influence swing voters and independents, analysts said.

Some analysts said democracy and stolen election myths will be less important in the fall than a more traditional election-year issue: the economy.

Primary updates: Cawthorn concedes to Edwards in NC; Fetterman wins Penn. Dem. Senate primary

Republicans hit Biden and the Democrats over inflation and economic uncertainty, counting on the traditional notion that the party in power loses in midterm elections.

Lara Brown, director and professor at the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University, said the midterms could boil down to contrasting views of the past two presidents.

"The central question of this election is whether suburban voters will be more inclined to view their vote as a referendum on – and a vote in opposition to – President Biden's economic leadership or former President Trump's conspiracist legacy," Brown said.

She noted that as primaries come up throughout the summer, both parties will still formulating fall election strategies. Brown said, "We'll have a much better sense of where these races are and what issues are animating voters come Labor Day."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Primaries spotlight US divisions and unhealed 2020 wounds

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