IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

There's a hot new trend in Democratic Senate primaries: They exist

Democrats used to avoid Senate primaries at all cost. Now, they have 10 candidates in Wisconsin. Four big ones in Pennsylvania.
Get more newsLiveon

Democratic voters looking to hold on to the Senate may have something unusual next year: options.

Unlike recent years, when Washington Democrats anointed favored Senate candidates early and more or less cleared the primary field for them, the party is now facing crowded nominating contests in some of the key states that will determine which party controls the upper chamber.

At least 10 Democrats are vying for a chance to take on vulnerable Republican Sen. Ron Johnson in Wisconsin, a state Joe Biden won last year. Four high-profile Democrats are jockeying for the nomination in Pennsylvania, where Republican Sen. Pat Toomey is retiring. And two Democrats have already raised more than $1 million each in North Carolina, with at least four more in the running for an open seat being vacated by Republican Sen. Richard Burr.

The party apparatus in Washington insists it is not — yet — wading in to pick sides.

“While we are keeping all of our options on the table, at this stage, the DSCC is assessing primary fields, maintaining open lines of communication with every candidate and building the campaign infrastructure our eventual nominee will need to win the general election,” said David Bergstein, the communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Republicans are no strangers to raucous primaries, going back at least to the rise of the tea party movement in 2010, and some this year have already turned nasty. National Republicans have generally taken a lighter touch in primaries and said they’ll stay out of intraparty contests this year.

But it’s a new approach for Democrats, who have prided themselves on coalescing behind one candidate early — even when it rankles activists and disfavored candidates — and have often called attention to the chaos on the GOP side.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., now the Senate majority leader, credited his success leading the party’s campaign efforts in 2006, when the Democrats had reclaimed the chamber, to his heavy hand in primaries.

“Of all the things (former Democratic Senate Leader) Harry Reid and I discussed the day I took the DSCC job, I believe that aggressive candidate selection — through both recruitment and intervention in primaries — contributed to winning the Senate majority more than any other (even more than our fundraising advantage, which was significant, to be sure.),” Schumer wrote in a post-election strategy memo.

But since then, Washington power brokers have had a harder time throwing their weight around, since candidates can now build their own fundraising and support networks online.

And, this year, a number of well-qualified Democrats jumped into Senate races especially early — including some who did so in order to try to get ahead of their party’s bigfoots.

In Wisconsin, the field includes Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes — the first African American to hold that post — state Treasurer Sarah Godlewski and Alex Lasry, the 33-year-old son of the billionaire owner of the Milwaukee Bucks and a top executive with the champion NBA team.

In North Carolina, which last year re-elected a Democratic governor as Biden lost the state by slightly more than a percentage point, Democrats are currently split between Cheri Beasley, the former chief justice of the state supreme court, and state senator and former Army Maj. Jeff Jackson.

Beasley, who is Black, has the backing of Emily’s List, the powerful group that supports women candidates, and the Congressional Black Caucus. Jackson, who is white, has been drawing big crowds and raised more than $2 million already, much of it online.

And in Pennsylvania, perhaps Democrats’ best pickup opportunity, there are four officially declared contenders with viable candidacies: Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb, state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta and Montgomery County Commissioner Dr. Val Arkoosh.

The Republican primary for the open Senate seat has grown acrimonious, though former President Donald Trump endorsed Sean Parnell on Thursday, and some are worried about a similar outcome on the Democratic side.

“At the end of the day, I don’t think it’s wise for our candidate, whoever he or she might be, to be a damaged candidate going into the general election,” Democratic Pennsylvania state Rep. Ryan Bizzarro said last month after endorsing Lamb at an event in Erie. “So I hope that everybody will be mindful of the things that they’re saying and how that will impact a general election.”

Lamb, a former Marine and federal prosecutor, won a high-profile special election in 2017 and entered the Senate race with a splash last month.

So far, the candidates in Pennsylvania have mostly been playing nice.

Arkoosh, a medical doctor who now runs one of the state’s largest counties in Philadelphia’s prosperous northern suburbs, positions herself as a moderate or pragmatist, like Lamb, and routinely resists requests to draw contrasts with her rivals.

“I totally understand why you’re asking that question, but I think that voters don’t care about labels or lanes,” she said in a recent interview.

Fetterman, Pennsylvania's 6-foot-9, goateed and tattooed lieutenant governor, is running for Senate as more of a populist or progressive. He took a subtle approach in a fundraising email sent the day after Lamb announced his candidacy, highlighting their policy differences without mentioning him by name.

“We’ll tell you, sure thing, clear as day — whether it’s Conor, Malcolm Kenyatta, Val Arkoosh or anyone else running on the Democrats’ side, they’d be a hell of a lot better than Toomey is as a senator,” Joe Calvello, a Fetterman spokesperson, said last month after Lamb entered the race. “I think we’ll talk about John’s record and just make sure people know where he stands on things, because he’s been around, and he has a record, and he’s been loud about it.”

Kenyatta, meanwhile, the grandson of a famed civil rights activist, would be the state’s first Black and first openly gay senator. And at only 31 years old, he’d be one of the youngest senators ever elected.

Mike Mikus, a Western Pennsylvania-based Democratic strategist who is not involved in the primary, said Washington Democrats are staying out of the primary because the candidates have their own strengths — and weaknesses.

“Conor Lamb has been through some tough races. John Fetterman is an interesting candidate. Malcolm Kenyatta would theoretically be able to help with turnout in the Philadelphia area and with African Americans. And Val Arkoosh would arguably be able to help with the new part of the Democratic coalition, in the suburbs, and especially suburban women,” he said.

Mikus said the thinking on competitive primaries has evolved among party insiders. While fears about nominees emerging from a heated primary “bloody and broke” have dominated, the scales have started to tip a bit toward arguments that competitive primaries can also be beneficial by giving the eventual nominee a “dry run” before the general election.

“Now, with the rise of online fundraising, these Senate campaigns can reload fairly quickly,” he said.

David Pepper, the former chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, believes primaries can be advantageous if they’re allowed to play out without interference from state and national leaders.

Contested primaries draw more media attention, affording candidates without statewide name recognition a chance to earn it early and for free. And, in his mind, a candidate who emerges from the field without institutional support has a better story to tell in a general election.

“What's the advantage to no primary? You don't spend any money, but I think you're far less on the mind of voters until later in the campaign,” said Pepper, who prefers Rep. Tim Ryan over progressive lawyer and activist Morgan Harper in Ohio’s Democratic Senate primary.

“If the other side is battling it out,” Pepper said, alluding to Ohio’s ultracompetitive Senate primary on the GOP side, “the risk is that, although you've saved some money, after the primary is over, you're down 20 points in the polls, because people don't know who you are.”