The author would like to thank research analyst Andy Cerda, for his contributions to the Primaries Project.
This is the third in a series of blog posts detailing our research on all 2360 candidates who ran for House or Senate in the 2022 primaries. We started coding each candidate by looking at their official website and then we looked at their Facebook page, their tweets, their press interviews, and their votes (in the case of incumbents) in order to determine their stances on the issues of the day. As would be expected in a primary season that ran six months, from March 1 to September 13 the salience of issues changed somewhat over time—nonetheless we managed to get a good sense of what the two parties’ candidates were talking about and perhaps, as important, what they were not talking about. We were also able to get a good sense of the divisions between the parties and within the parties.
The most talked about issues
Congressional primaries are one of the purest ways to see just how different the two parties are. Of the issues mentioned by each party only abortion and guns fell into the top five for both parties. Democrats also talked about health care, climate change and electoral integrity, while Republicans talked about immigration, taxes and regulation and inflation.
Some issues in politics are litmus tests for the parties. In 2022 there were a few issues that met this standard. For example, abortion and gun control were issues discussed by a majority of candidates in both parties. But almost no Democrats (13 out of 962) took pro-life positions and almost no Republicans—(17 out of 1398)—promoted pro-choice positions. On gun control we see a similar split, only 15 Democrats ran as strong supporters of the right to bear arms and the Second Amendment and only 30 Republicans ran as supporters of stronger gun laws.
The issue of election integrity was new to the 2020 congressional primaries, due almost entirely to Donald Trump’s continued insistence that the 2020 elections were fatally flawed, and it too became a litmus test for each party. Nearly every Democrat who mentioned reform of elections insisted that reforms were needed to make it easier to vote; while nearly every Republican who mentioned the issue talked about reforms being needed to make it more difficult to cheat.
Yet, many issues in this primary cycle were not litmus test issues. Instead, they were talked about widely by one party, but not the other. For Democrats, healthcare remained the top issue, as it was in 2018 when soon-to-be Speaker Nancy Pelosi credited health care with restoring the Democratic majority in the House. Twenty-six percent of Democratic candidates advocated Medicare-for-all or some sort of single payer system while the remaining candidates (36%) favored some form of expanding, reforming, or protecting the current health system including the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Most Republicans, 77%, simply stayed away from the issue but a minority of those who did mention it (9%) persisted in advocating repeal of the ACA.
Climate change was also high on the agenda of Democratic candidates but practically absent from the agendas of Republican candidates. Of the Republicans who did discuss climate change, (15%) took the extreme position that climate change is a hoax. Of the remaining Republicans who mentioned it, most expressed concern for what dealing with climate change might do to the economy.
Immigration was mentioned much more often by Republican candidates than by Democratic candidates. The Republican candidates who talked about immigration were evenly split. About half wanted to build the wall or finish the wall and wanted immigrants arrested and deported. The other half said, more generally, that they wanted to secure the border. Most of the Democrats who talked about immigration favored some form of comprehensive immigration reform. Very few (11 or 1%) Democratic candidates favored open borders—a further indication that the Democratic Party is nowhere near as radical as their opponents would like them to be.
Consistent with our findings in previous years, Republicans spent much more time discussing taxes and regulations than did the Democrats. This issue, of course, is an oldie but goodie, dividing the two parties well before Trump’s time. Nearly every Republican candidate who mentioned this issue said, in one way or the other, that lowering taxes and getting rid of useless regulations was the best way to help the economy. Most Democrats didn’t mention the issue, but of those who did, nearly all (94%) thought that the rich needed to pay their fair share of taxes and/or that the government should protect citizens from corporations through regulation.
The other major economic issue in 2022 was inflation. Not surprisingly, given President Biden’s vulnerability on this issue throughout most of the primary season, only 17% of Democratic candidates said anything about inflation at all. Of those who did mention it, nearly all believed that inflation would come under control once the president’s agenda was passed.
The least talked about issues
There were a set of issues that received very little attention from candidates in either party but have managed outsized attention in traditional media and social media.
In 2022, as in previous years, there were some issues that were important in Washington, DC, but which barely registered in the primaries. Critical race theory, which seemed to come out of nowhere to impact the Virginia gubernatorial race in 2021, was largely ignored by Democrats and was criticized, directly or indirectly, by the majority of Republicans who chose to talk about it.
Content regulation has been and continues to be a hot topic in Washington as the government copes with ways to regulate large social media companies and yet 94% of Democrats and 76% of Republicans had nothing to say about it. This is often the case with important policy issues that are complex and difficult to understand. For the Republicans who did talk about it, most of them understood this issue as an attempt to limit free speech, especially conservative speech. The same holds true for the debate over whether the large social media companies are monopolies and should be broken up. The vast majority of candidates in both parties (92% of Democrats and 94% of Republicans) had nothing to say about this topic.
There were also issues which were perceived to advantage one party or another and were thus not discussed. Not surprisingly, Democrats shied away from discussing the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in August 2021, while the Republicans who did mention it used the issue to criticize President Biden. Republicans stayed away from discussing the high cost of prescription drugs, and from discussing Biden’s infrastructure bill—two issues popular with the public. Legalization of cannabis was largely ignored by candidates in both parties, but Democratic candidates spoke more favorably about it than did Republican candidates. And the January 6 uprising at the Capitol was ignored by more Republican candidates (83%) than by Democratic candidates (65%.)
Police and criminal justice reform were mentioned equally by both parties’ candidates—45% each. The substantive divisions, however, are predictable. Republicans talked about ‘Blue Lives Matter’ and support of law enforcement. Democrats tended to talk about the need for police reform and Black Lives Matter. In keeping with our findings on other extreme, far-left, issues, very few Democratic candidates (17 out of 962 or less than 2%) talked about defunding the police.
The primary year began as the nation’s second tough winter of Covid was ending. The country was eager to put the pandemic behind it and so were the candidates. We looked for how they felt about vaccine mandates and shutdowns. As the pandemic faded into the background, few candidates talked about it. Seventy-six percent of all candidates had nothing to say about vaccine mandates; 95% of Democrats didn’t mention it at all, but 36% of Republicans did. Of that 36%, 99% of Republicans made statements against vaccine mandates. Somewhat more candidates talked about lockdowns—mostly Republicans who were against government interference. But as the pandemic began to fade, so did its salience in the primaries.
As we discovered in previous years, congressional primaries feature two distinct sets of conversations with only a small number of issues discussed in both parties. And, as we discovered in previous years, many issues that are important in Washington don’t get discussed in congressional primaries. Obviously, incumbents have positions on most of the issues because they are forced to take votes on a wide range of areas. Other candidates, however, vary widely. Some candidates run on one or two issues. Other candidates attempt to cover the waterfront of issues—some better than others.
In these polarized times the parties are diametrically opposed on many issues and surprisingly united internally. There are a few exceptions. Among the Democrats there’s a debate still waiting to happen between single payer health care and improving the patchwork of programs in our current health care system. Among the Republicans, there is a debate still waiting to happen over building a wall or doing other, perhaps more productive, things to improve border security.
Finally, there is one surprising bit of harmony in a party system plagued by conflict. As for foreign policy and America’s role in the world, candidates in both parties expressed support for a strong American presence in the world—a welcome respite from polarization.