Last week we had a brief look at a Congressional by-election in Texas. Another two by-elections will be held in November in Ohio, in the 11th and 15th districts. Neither is likely to produce much excitement: the 11th, vacated by the appointment of Marcia Fudge as secretary of housing and urban development, is very safe Democrat, while the 15th, whose previous member resigned to become president of the Ohio chamber of commerce, is almost as safe Republican.
But that means the primary elections in each case were the important thing, and they were held last week. With not much else happening on the electoral front, each was being watched as a potential indicator of the balance of power within the parties.
The Democratic primary in the 11th was a straight two-way battle between Shontel Brown, a moderate backed by the party’s leading centrists (among them Hillary Clinton), and Nina Turner, a left-winger backed by Bernie Sanders and other self-styled socialists. Turner had much the higher national profile and went into the campaign as the front-runner.
But Brown steadily made up ground, and on the day she prevailed fairly comfortably, with 50.2% to Turner’s 44.5%. She will now go up against Republican Laverne Gore, making her second hopeless attempt at the district.
Turner blamed “billionaire-funded Super PACs fighting tooth and nail” for her defeat, but since she raised twice as much money as Brown it doesn’t really look as if campaign spending was her problem. It’s more a sign that Democrat voters, or at least those in suburban Cleveland, are happy enough with the party’s direction and not seeking radical change.
In the 15th, a largely rural district in the southern part of the state, it was the Republican primary that mattered. It was a crowded field, with at least six serious candidates, but again there was an early front-runner: Mike Carey, a coal industry lobbyist who gained the vital endorsement of Donald Trump.
Some had interpreted – wrongly, in my view – the result in Texas’s 6th district the previous week as a setback for Trump’s influence in the Republican Party. So there was some thought that one of Carey’s opponents might be able to reel in his lead. As it happened, none of them even got close.
But although Carey won by more than twenty points, he didn’t have a majority. He won with 37.0% of the vote; his nearest rival, state lower house member Jeff LaRe, had 13.3% and another three exceeded ten per cent. Like most of the country, Ohio uses first-past-the-post, so the fact that more than 60% voted against the winner doesn’t matter.
Which is, of course, pretty much how Trump won the presidency in the first place. During the 2016 primaries he never had majority support among Republicans, but he was the single most popular candidate in a big field. His rivals were unable to unite against him until it was much too late.
So it may be that each Ohio race was symbolic of where the two parties are. The Democrats are divided in a more or less binary fashion; the moderates have majority support, and will win provided they unite behind a single candidate (as they did last year with Joe Biden). The Republicans, on the other hand, are much messier; the Trumpists are not a majority, but they are the most powerful force because there is nothing to unify their opponents.
If the Democrats’ progressives want to do better, they mostly need to work on convincing voters who are currently sceptical, not imagining that they already represent a majority that’s being stifled by unfair rules. The anti-Trump Republicans need to do that as well, but more urgently they need to find unity among themselves.