As the primary season comes to an end, one thing is clear — Republican voters didn’t care about who party leaders said would win elections this November.
From Arizona to New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania to Ohio, only two things seemed to matter to Republican primary voters: who former President Donald Trump endorsed, and who came out swinging the hardest at the establishment.
New polling figures released by Axios may show why. Of the Republicans who responded, 42% said it was better to have a strong unelected leader than a weak elected one. Only 31% of Democrats said the same thing. While this isn’t a majority of Republicans, it’s a strong enough minority that it might help explain what happened in the primaries.
The latest example is the triumph of Don Bolduc over Chuck Morse in a U.S. Senate race in the New Hampshire Republican primary on Tuesday. Bolduc, a retired Army general, signed an August 2021 letter questioning the integrity of the 2020 election and has also backed a conspiracy theory that Bill Gates wanted to put microchips in the COVID-19 vaccine.
Morse was heavily backed by Republican establishment figures including popular New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu. In an op-ed in the New Hampshire Union Leader, Sununu wrote that he endorsed Morse because “the stakes are too high for New Hampshire and America. We need a Republican nominee who will win, who has taken (Democratic Sen.) Maggie Hassan head-on before, and who will have the resources to compete in the most crucial battleground state in America.”
No matter, voters ignored Sununu and every other establishment figure who backed Morse. Even though Sununu is popular in his home state — he easily beat an opponent in Tuesday’s gubernatorial primary — he could not sway enough Republican voters to his side. Morse conceded the race to Bolduc on Wednesday, setting Bolduc up for what many analysts believe will be a likely defeat this fall.
BREAKING: Retired U.S. Army General — Don Bolduc wins Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in New Hampshire— InteractivePolls (@IAPolls2022) September 14, 2022
Don served 10 tours in Afghanistan. He survived both a bomb blast, and a helicopter crash and was awarded five Bronze Star medals, and two Purple Hearts pic.twitter.com/OuYPwY9uBm
The same phenomenon played out in Pennsylvania, where Trump-endorsed Dr. Mehmet Oz narrowly defeated the more establishment figure, and in Arizona, where Trump-backed Blake Masters won the primary. Masters is now publicly complaining that Republican Party leaders are not giving him money.
This may be just another sign that the Republican grassroots are fed up with the party’s establishment, and they just want to thumb their noses at them.
It may also be that they don’t believe the party leadership’s assessment of who has the best chance to win in November. After all, Trump won when everyone said he would lose. And recent reporting in The New York Times has suggested the polls may be undercounting Republican votes this year as well.
Then there’s the Democratic meddling in Republican primaries. As they did in other states, Democrats poured millions into defeating the more moderate Morse in the New Hampshire primary, believing that Bolduc will be much easier to beat in November.
Many of the races have also been very close, including in Pennsylvania, where less than a thousand votes separated Oz and the establishment candidate David McCormick, and in New Hampshire, where just a few thousand votes separated Bolduc and Morse. These close elections highlight the split in the Republican Party between those who support Trump and those who are ready to move on.
All of this means Republicans look less and less likely to take the U.S. Senate this fall, although their chances look better in the House.
Even in the race for the House, though, there are warning signs. Alaska Democrat Mary Peltola beat Trump-backed Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate, in a three-way match-up in a special general election to fill the House seat long been held by Rep. Don Young, who died in March.
Yes, ranked-choice voting was a factor in Palin’s defeat. But, in the end, she lost. A Democrat now holds that seat for the first time in 50 years.
Maybe Republican voters don’t care. Maybe they’d rather really like the people who represent them in the general election than have their party in power. But they may not feel that way next year as the Senate continues to confirm progressive judges and administration officials.