Opinion Mainstream Democrats romped in the primaries. Republicans went full MAGA.

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HR King
May 29, 2001
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By Dana Milbank
Columnist |
September 13, 2022 at 5:39 p.m. EDT

The 2022 primary season has come to an end — and with it so should any claims that our politics is afflicted by “polarization.”
In both parties, ideological forces did indeed try to pull the center of gravity toward the extremes. But the results were sharply different. In the GOP, the hard right prevailed, very much confirming the impression of a MAGA takeover of the party. In the Democratic primaries, the hard left was a nonentity, and the mainstream triumphed overwhelmingly; for all the chatter about the Squad, socialists, “Defund the Police,” “Abolish ICE,” “Medicare-for-all” and the “Green New Deal,” candidates who self-identified with such views barely registered.
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An exhaustive study of all primary contestants for the House and Senate, done by a team led by Elaine Kamarck of the Brookings Institution, categorized the 2,362 candidates (of whom 1,397 were Republican) by endorsements, self-proclaimed ideology and use of hot-button phrases. On the Democratic side, only 28 percent of candidates approvingly used left-wing phrases on their websites (Defund, Medicare-for-all, Green New Deal, etc.) or received an endorsement from either Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a member of the Squad, or the left-wing groups Justice for All, Our Revolution or Indivisible. Of the nearly three-quarters of Democratic candidates who had none of the above, about half won their primaries. By contrast, 41 percent of Republican candidates approvingly mentioned former president Donald Trump, MAGA or “America First,” or had a Trump endorsement or a Trump photo on their websites. Fifty-nine percent of Republicans had none of those — but such candidates prevailed only 30 percent of the time.
The upshot, Kamarck tells me, is that the majority of Republican nominees on the November ballot are MAGA adherents, while the vast majority of Democratic nominees do not identify with left-wing figures or causes.

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Looking at it another way, the Brookings researchers found that 36 percent of GOP primary candidates identified themselves as MAGA Republicans, whereas only 1.5 percent of Democrats identified as socialists. And of the 13 candidates nationwide who called themselves democratic socialists, only five won, all in safely blue districts.
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“The bottom line here is the left in the Democratic Party is simply not as strong as the right is within the Republican Party,” says Kamarck, a veteran of the Clinton White House who also teaches at Harvard University. The results don’t include Tuesday’s final round of primaries, but there weren’t enough contests to change the overall results much.
The findings put the lie to the Republican caricature of Democrats as a bunch of radical socialists. They also show that the far left is something of a paper tiger, with disproportionate influence on social media and within urban Democratic powerhouses but with a relatively small constituency in the party nationwide.
Though years of decisions by Republican leaders have empowered extremists in the party, the asymmetric dominance of the far right in the GOP (compared with the far left in the Democratic Party) is also a matter of arithmetic: There are simply more right-wingers. For four decades, almost twice as many Americans have identified as conservatives as have called themselves liberals. Though use of the “liberal” label has ticked up a bit (thanks in part to such popular figures as Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York), “it turns out not to be very attractive to the [Democratic] electorate at large,” Kamarck argues. By contrast, “Republicans simply have a better chance of getting to victory with a base strategy than the Democrats do.”
The Brookings analysis is consistent with other studies showing limited electoral clout on the far left. An Axios report at the end of July found that moderate candidates won 14 of 22 congressional primaries when challenged by progressive candidates in competitive seats.
But there’s also potentially hopeful news in here for the return of a sane Republican Party: Three in 5 Republican primary candidates had no mention of Trump or MAGA on their websites, no Trump endorsement and no photo of Trump. Those candidates had a poor winning record, but their very presence indicates that many Republicans are hoping for their party’s fever to break.
The results also show that incumbent lawmakers have less to fear from primary contests than they might think. Such challenges have been on the rise in both parties (64 percent of incumbents up for reelection faced one this cycle), but only 15 of 284 incumbents facing primaries lost to challengers — and nearly half of those were in cases in which redistricting caused incumbents to face each other in primaries.
With a bit more courage, Republican lawmakers might discover that they don’t have to be held hostage by extremists.

 

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