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"I Voted" stickers are seen at a polling site during the New York State Democratic primary in New York City, U.S., September 13, 2018. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid - RC1122CFBDD0
Report

The 2018 Primaries Project: Final thoughts on candidates

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Editor's Note:

The following is the conclusion of "Political polarization and congressional candidates in the 2018 primaries," a report from The Primaries Project at Brookings.

This is the third report we have conducted on the universe of candidates who run in congressional primaries. In 2016, the presidential primaries unearthed extensive divisions within each political party. The Democrats saw an expansion of the left wing of their party under the leadership of Sen. Bernie Sanders. Many pundits began to identify it as the Sanders/Warren wing of the party—referring to Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. On the Republican side, Donald Trump managed to surprise the establishment, win the nomination, and then fail to unify the party behind his definition of Republicanism. In fact, Trump’s candidacy opened up a full-scale war within the GOP. Despite the drama taking place in the presidential primaries, such tension was not mirrored in the congressional primaries. While there was more division at the congressional level among Republicans than among Democrats, the levels were small.

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By 2018, the story had changed—Democrats faced their own internal battles due to the growth in energy and capacity of the progressive wing of the party. There were many more self-identified Progressives running on the Democratic side than ever before. While their effect is not likely to be as dramatic as some press accounts have indicated, their presence will, in fact change the conversation within the Democratic Party, especially if or when Democrats take over the presidency and the Congress.

On the Republican side, the collapse of self-identified Tea Party candidates continued and the ability of Establishment Republicans to win their races called into question just how permanent the radicalization of the GOP would be.

By and large, the 2018 candidates are white and college educated. 2018 however, is noteworthy for the large numbers of women candidates in the race, and for how often they won their parties’ nomination. 2018 may well turn out to be the “year of the woman,” in American politics.

By and large, the 2018 candidates are white and college educated. 2018 however, is noteworthy for the large numbers of women candidates in the race, and for how often they won their parties’ nomination. 2018 may well turn out to be the “year of the woman,” in American politics. The presence of so many women and the fact that they are doing well electorally—in the context of the change in the zeitgeist illustrated by the “#metoo” movement and the dramatic hearings over Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination—mean that these elections will be more significant than we ever imagined. A larger number of women in Congress could change the congressional agenda.

In addition, Trump’s tax law is likely to come under the kind of attack that Obamacare experienced. The two parties will continue to fight about health care, but if and when the Democrats take back the White House and the Congress, Medicare-for-All will constitute a new wrinkle in the ongoing health care debate. Finally, immigration has become an even more polarized issue than it was in 2016, meaning that there may be no resolution in sight until one party finds it in its interests to engage in compromise. In its autopsy of the 2012 election, the Republican National Committee urged members of their party to cooperate on a solution to the immigration issue as a means of taking it off the table. However, Trump’s successful use of that issue to win both the nomination and the general election in 2016 means that the polarization and stand-off around the issue of illegal immigration are likely to persist.

Nevertheless, this leaves a large number of issues open, especially in the areas of defense and national security Furthermore, the next Congress may be forced to deal with the question of what to do with President Trump in the aftermath of the Mueller probe. Congressional primaries reveal the fault lines that are likely to continue into the caucus meetings of each political party as they turn to governance, but they cover a limited set of issues, leaving many to be decided after the election.


Return to the report home page, or view the appendix and acknowledgements.

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