With a MAGA win and a Squad loss, the political middle moves

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There must be some sort of larger takeaway in the fact that Rep. Lauren Boebert, among the most MAGA members of Congress, won a Republican primary in Colorado on Tuesday night, and Rep. Jamaal Bowman, a member of the progressive “Squad” from the Bronx, lost a Democratic primary to a more moderate candidate from Westchester County in New York.

Every House race is different, obviously, since all politics is local, according to the old saying. So it would be an oversimplification to say that Republicans moved more MAGA and Democrats moved more moderate based on these two unrelated races.

More MAGA or moderate?

And yet there’s evidence to support that general trend. Look no further than the two parties’ presidential candidates.

Former President Donald Trump personifies MAGA, and a large part of the Make America Great Again ethos he pushes is loyalty to him. President Joe Biden, on the other hand, effectively worked with Republicans to pass a bill to improve the nation’s infrastructure and has said he wants to work with Republicans on immigration reform. Many Republicans will tell you they don’t believe Biden.

There’s nothing moderate about either Boebert or Bowman, who occupy space on the fringe of their respective parties. Both were also seriously flawed candidates with problems that extend beyond policy. Boebert was kicked out of a theater last year for vaping and “causing a disturbance,” for instance. Bowman was charged last year with pulling a fire alarm in a House office building when there was no emergency.

Rather than face voters in the district she narrowly won two years ago, Boebert moved to run in a district with a more conservative voting record. She emerged from a crowded field to win the Republican primary in the district, which was previously represented by Rep. Ken Buck, a conservative Republican who is a critic of Trump and had resigned from office in frustration.

Bowman, on the other hand, was targeted by more mainstream Democrats in part for his loud criticism of Israel in its war on Hamas in Gaza, an issue that has split Democrats this year. Pro-Israel groups spent heavily in the race, attempting to oust Bowman. However, in advertising, Bowman was attacked more for his opposition to Biden’s policies than for his position on Israel.

Evidence of a liberal retreat

I asked CNN’s Gregory Krieg, who covered the Bowman race, why he thinks Bowman lost and what it says about Democrats today. Here’s what he emailed back:

KRIEG: There are obviously many ways to read Bowman’s defeat, and his failure to bridge the gap with pro-Israel Jewish voters in the district, specifically in Westchester, is understandably the one you’re hearing most often. But I also think, if we’re looking at this through a national lens, it’s hard to not see it as part of the broader liberal retreat from some of the more aggressive left-wing characters and candidates they embraced during Trump’s presidency.

For all the talk about Democrats’ lack of enthusiasm about Biden personally, the idea of Biden – the moderate, even-tempered statesman type – is still very, very popular. And (Westchester County Executive George) Latimer, to some extent, embodied that.

It obviously did not help Bowman that AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) and other outside groups bombarded him with record spending and gobs of money invested in research into every thought that’s crossed his mind the last 25 years.

That primary voters did not hold the spending against Latimer, as progressives argued they should, also reminds me that voters (especially Democrats) in presidential cycles tend to be cautious. You’ll probably never hear Trump, Fox News or anyone on the right mention Latimer’s name. And for some folks left-of-center, that’s priceless.

Utah went its own way

While Boebert’s victory provides a foil for Bowman’s loss, it was far from a perfect night for more MAGA Republicans.

In a separate Colorado race, the chair of the state GOP, Dave Williams, who had gotten Trump’s endorsement but who said controversial things about gay rights – including that Pride flags should be burned – lost to the more establishment pick, Jeff Crank, a real estate investor and former talk radio host.

And in Utah, Republicans snubbed the MAGA options for both governor and senator in a state that is very conservative but where the base of Mormon voters has bristled at the former president.

Current Sen. Mitt Romney is a notable Trump critic in the GOP, and his decision not to run for reelection opened up an opportunity to replace one of the few remaining Republicans who voted to convict Trump on impeachment charges in 2021 with a Trump-backed Republican.

Rep. John Curtis, the winner of the GOP Senate primary, did not vote to convict Trump as a member of the House, but he is the rare Republican focused on climate change, an issue that disproportionately affects Utah but which Trump dismisses.

The larger problem …

Both Curtis and Gov. Spencer Cox were actually rejected by GOP party activists at the state’s nominating convention but found their way onto the ballot with the help of signature drives. Cox has taken more moderate positions on certain issues and was booed at the state GOP convention this year, according to The Associated Press. But Cox and Curtis both easily won their primaries, which essentially determine the winner of statewide contests in a state like Utah.

It’s a shame that primary voters are becoming the de facto general election voters in states and districts that lean heavily to one side or the other, according to former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, a Republican who wrote a lament in The Washington Post that most of the country lives in a state with “trifecta” government, where one party controls most of what’s happening at their state level.

Daniels writes: The issue isn’t simply that states lean reliably Republican or Democratic. It’s that now a big majority are heavily, maybe irrevocably, tilted in one direction or the other. Where that obtains, office seekers pitch their initial appeals to the hard core on their side, as primary candidates always have. The difference is that, instead of the winner’s traditional post-primary imperative, to reach out to nonpartisans and even open-minded members of the opposing party, now their job is finished.

There are efforts to change this dynamic, which we’ve written about in this newsletter, such as in states experimenting with nonpartisan primaries and ranked-choice voting.

But Daniels has a point. None of the races we’ve discussed so far in this story are expected to be at all competitive in November.

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