Dozens of candidates are entering races for seats in critical states across the country as both Democrats and Republicans confront the prospect of crowded primary fields ahead of next year’s midterm elections.
In years past, party leaders have stepped in to anoint a favored candidate, bestowing the title of presumptive nominee on a contender who appeared straight from central casting.
But this year, the democratization of both fundraising and the ability to communicate with voters has robbed each side of much of their power to influence primary voters. The result has been a mad dash to enter the races that will decide which party controls the Senate in the next Congress.
Republicans are a decade removed from the Tea Party movement, which helped reduce the influence of the national party over contested primary elections — a factor that contributed to flawed Republican nominees losing winnable seats in states like Nevada, Delaware, Colorado, Missouri and elsewhere in past cycles.
But for Democrats, the phenomenon of losing control is new.
Consider Pennsylvania, where Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D) entered the race to replace retiring Sen. Pat ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeyBlack women look to build upon gains in coming elections Watch live: GOP senators present new infrastructure proposal Sasse rebuked by Nebraska Republican Party over impeachment vote MORE (R) in early February. His stature as a national media darling with an ability to raise huge sums of money might have once scared others out of the race. Instead, the flood of Democratic candidates has mounted.
Less than two weeks after Fetterman entered the race, state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (D), a 30-year-old who represents a seat in Philadelphia, entered the race. So did Montgomery County Commission chair Val Arkoosh (D). Rep. Conor Lamb (D), who shares Fetterman’s eastern Pennsylvania base, has made moves toward running. So has Reps. Madeleine DeanMadeleine DeanThe Hill’s Morning Report – Presented by Facebook – Democrats’ agenda in limbo as Senate returns House Democrats to Schumer: Vote again on Jan. 6 probe Democrats claim vindication, GOP cries witch hunt as McGahn finally testifies MORE (D) and Chrissy Houlahan (D), both of whom hold suburban Philadelphia-area seats.
The same situation has played out for Democrats in North Carolina, Wisconsin and Florida, where candidates who might have been seen as front-runners in the past have been unable to dissuade other contenders from jumping into high-profile Senate contests.
“There is sort of a flattening out of the party hierarchy,” said Mark Nevins, a Pennsylvania-based Democratic strategist who is unaligned in his state’s primary so far. “We are currently living in an historic age in which we are coming to a reckoning on issues of race and justice and disenfranchisement, and politics reflects that.”
Martha McKenna, a former top political adviser to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), said candidates are informed and inspired by recent history. After Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaObama warns of ‘dangers of cancel culture’ going ‘overboard’ Biden’s global vaccination push must not ignore Americans abroad Kamala Harris gambles with history MORE went from the state legislature to the White House in four years, a rush of state legislators or nonpoliticians — Jeff MerkleyJeff MerkleySome Democrats wonder when Schumer will get tough with Manchin Progressives relish return to in-person events Sex workers gain foothold in Congress MORE in Oregon, Kay HaganKay Ruthven HaganDemocrats, GOP face crowded primaries as party leaders lose control Biden’s gun control push poses danger for midterms The two women who could ‘cancel’ Trump MORE in North Carolina, Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenDemocrats, GOP face crowded primaries as party leaders lose control Gillibrand: ‘I definitely want to run for president again’ Maher chides Democrats: We ‘suck the fun out of everything’ MORE in Minnesota — ran for and won Senate seats.
Candidates who might have once stayed on the sidelines because they did not fit what had been seen as the ideal profile now feel freer to make their case. They may hope to emulate the viral fundraising capability demonstrated by Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSenate passes long-delayed China bill Biden ends infrastructure talks with key Republican Five key parts of the Senate’s sweeping China competitiveness bill MORE (I-Vt.) or Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezHarris hears criticism from all sides amid difficult first trip White House defends Harris comments on border: ‘We need more time to get the work done’ Ocasio-Cortez: Harris telling migrants ‘do not come’ to US is ‘disappointing to see’ MORE (D-N.Y.). Or they may look to Sens. Raphael WarnockRaphael WarnockMLB calls lawsuit over All-Star Game ‘political theatrics’ Herschel Walker skips Georgia’s GOP convention Georgia agriculture commissioner launches Senate campaign against Warnock MORE (D-Ga.) and Jon OssoffJon OssoffStacey Abrams calls on young voters of color to support election reform bill MLB calls lawsuit over All-Star Game ‘political theatrics’ Georgia agriculture commissioner launches Senate campaign against Warnock MORE (D-Ga.), neither of whom fit the stereotype of a Senate candidate in a conservative state, as inspiration.
“After you come off a cycle or two, 2018 and then 2020 when Biden wins, people can feel victory, and people who want to serve in higher office can see a path. We’ve had important victories in the last couple of cycles, so people can see a path to victory for themselves,” McKenna said.
After a string of bad results in the last several cycles in states like North Carolina, Iowa, Maine and Pennsylvania, where candidates favored by the DSCC lost general elections against Republicans, the national party’s grip on the primary process has waned.
“The [state] party organization wants to play a much more vital role in selecting their nominee than having [Senate Majority Leader] Chuck SchumerChuck SchumerBiden talks reconciliation with Schumer as infrastructure negotiations falter Biden ends infrastructure talks with key Republican White House: Biden considers Manchin a friend despite latest policy break MORE deciding who their nominee is going to be and putting millions of dollars in. That did not work out so well in 2018,” said Brad Crone, a longtime North Carolina Democratic strategist.
The DSCC has not issued any endorsements or signaled favorites in any races this year, though the committee does not plan to take options off the table.
“At this stage we are carefully assessing the candidate fields, keeping open lines of communication with candidates and working to build the infrastructure we’ll need to win the general election,” a committee spokesperson said in an email.
In 2018, the top super PAC aimed at electing Democrats spent millions of dollars in the primary on behalf of former state Sen. Cal Cunningham (D), a moderate white man whose profile seemed tailor-made to a slowly liberalizing electorate. Cunningham lost a race in which he polled well ahead, after acknowledging an affair.
Now, North Carolina Democrats face their own crowded primary: Former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley (D), a Black woman, is seen as the front-runner against state Sen. Jeff Jackson (D) and former state Sen. Erica Smith (D), who ran against Cunningham two years ago.
In Florida, Rep. Val DemingsValdez (Val) Venita DemingsBlack women look to build upon gains in coming elections Nikki Fried, only statewide elected Democrat in Florida, launches challenge to DeSantis Democrats plot next move after GOP sinks Jan. 6 probe MORE (D) said this week she would challenge Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioSenate passes long-delayed China bill Senate Republicans urge Biden administration to keep Palestinian diplomatic missions closed UFOs are (probably) not secret Chinese spy planes MORE (R). The night before her announcement, Rep. Stephanie MurphyStephanie MurphyDemings raises Democrats’ hopes in uphill fight to defeat Rubio Florida state senator announces bid for Demings’s House seat The Hill’s Morning Report – Presented by Uber – One year later — has George Floyd’s killing changed the world? MORE (D) appeared in Tallahassee, hundreds of miles from her district, as she lays groundwork for her own bid.
In Wisconsin, Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson (D) entered the race against Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonSenate passes long-delayed China bill Colonial Pipeline CEO grilled over ransomware attack Five key parts of the Senate’s sweeping China competitiveness bill MORE (R) even before the 2020 elections. He was joined by Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry (D), a former aide in Obama’s White House, state Treasurer Sarah Godlewski (D) and radiologist Gillian Battino. Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes (D) is also said to be exploring the race.
Nelson, 45, is the old man in the race; the other three are all under 40.
“Any one of these candidates if they strike the right chord and are hitting the right notes in their campaign are going to be able to put together the resources to run a primary campaign, and once you’ve got the nomination in our state at least you’ve got a 50-50 coin flip chance of serving in the United States Senate,” said Joe Zepecki, a Wisconsin-based Democratic strategist. “All of that has made it easier for people who do not fit the historical profile of a United States senator think, why not me? And that is a good thing.”
Republicans know the feeling after a decade of Tea Party-inspired candidates — including, to a degree, former President TrumpDonald TrumpJack Ciattarelli wins GOP primary in New Jersey governor’s race House Judiciary Democrats call on DOJ to reverse decision on Trump defense Democratic super PAC targets Youngkin over voting rights MORE — upended the GOP’s carefully laid plans.
“I think the problem was disenchantment with the Wall Street bailout at the end of 2008. That’s really what launched the Tea Party in winter of 2009 and was the tipping point of changing our primary axis from ‘who’s most conservative’ to ‘who’s more outsider,’” said Brad Todd, a longtime Republican strategist whose clients include Sens. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleyColonial Pipeline CEO grilled over ransomware attack Senate Republicans delaying Biden OPM nominee’s confirmation Fauci hits back at GOP criticism over emails: ‘It’s all nonsense’ MORE (R-Mo.) and Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisLara Trump lost her best opportunity — if she ever really wanted it 9 Senate seats most likely to flip in 2022 North Carolina senators tell governor to turn down federal unemployment benefits MORE (R-N.C.). “It became a total replacement framework and you saw it instantly on blogs like RedState and new radio shows like Mark LevinMark Reed LevinDemocrats, GOP face crowded primaries as party leaders lose control Boehner on Bachmann: Right-wing media made ‘people who used to be fringe characters into powerful media stars’ Boehner says he called Hannity ‘a nut’ during tense 2015 phone call MORE. They filled the information gap previously filled by party leader cues.”
This year, Republicans have a new set of competitive primaries ahead. At least five prominent Republicans are running to replace retiring Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Biden ends infrastructure talks with key Republican | Colonial Pipeline CEO grilled over ransomware attack | Texas gov signs bills to improve power grid after winter storm On The Money: Biden ends infrastructure talks with Capito, pivots to bipartisan group | Some US billionaires had years where they paid no taxes: report | IRS to investigate leak Biden ends infrastructure talks with key Republican MORE (R-Ohio); half a dozen candidates of varying prominence are already in the race to succeed Toomey in Pennsylvania; three are running to replace retiring Sen. Richard BurrRichard Mauze Burr House Democrats to Schumer: Vote again on Jan. 6 probe Lara Trump lost her best opportunity — if she ever really wanted it Trump touts record, blasts Dems in return to stage MORE (R-N.C.) in a field that is certain to grow; and three are running for retiring Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntBipartisan group prepping infrastructure plan as White House talks lag The Hill’s Morning Report – Presented by Facebook – Biden, Harris take US goals abroad Senate Republican: ‘You really have to treat Russia like it’s virtually a criminal enterprise’ MORE’s (R-Mo.) seat while at least three more take hard looks at the race.
Most of the Republican candidates have kicked off their campaigns by tying themselves closely to Trump. Democrats say Trump has been an inspiration for candidates on their side, too — groups dedicated to recruiting more women, minorities and young people to run all saw a surge of interest after Trump’s 2016 election win, a surge that is fueling some of the interest in this year’s contests.
“When you see more people like yourself doing great, that’s a factor,” Zepecki said. “And when you see what a terrible job and how much controversy one individual member can gin up, it makes it seem more accessible.”