Do Historic Victories & Tight Races in Primaries Mean Dems Could Retake Senate & House in November?

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Voters headed to the polls Tuesday for a special election in Ohio and primaries in Michigan, Kansas, Missouri and Washington. A special election in Ohio’s 12th Congressional District remains too close to call, but Republican Troy Balderson has already claimed victory over Democrat Danny O’Connor to serve the remainder of former Republican Congressmember Pat Tiberi’s term. Balderson leads by just 1,754 votes, and thousands of absentee and provisional ballots still need to be counted. O’Connor is hoping to pull off a major upset. President Trump won the district in 2016 by a margin of more than 11 percent. In Michigan, Rashida Tlaib won the Democratic primary for John Conyers’s old House seat. She could now become the first Muslim woman elected to Congress. In Washington, D.C., we speak with Zaid Jilani, staff reporter at The Intercept. In Madison, Wisconsin, we speak with John Nichols, political writer for The Nation.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: On Tuesday, voters headed to the polls for a special election in Ohio and primaries in Michigan, Kansas, Missouri and Washington. A special election in Ohio’s 12th Congressional District remains too close to call, but Republican Troy Balderson has already claimed victory over Democrat Danny O’Connor to serve the remainder of former Republican Congressman Pat Tiberi’s term. Balderson leads by just 1,754 votes, and thousands of absentee and provisional ballots still need to be counted. O’Connor is hoping to pull off a major upset.

DANNY O’CONNOR: Can you believe how close this is? We are in a tie ballgame. And you made this possible.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: President Trump won the district in 2016 by a margin of more than 11 percent. Regardless of who wins the special election, the two candidates will face off again in November. In Kansas, the Republican gubernatorial primary also remains too close to call. The race pitted the state’s new governor, Jeff Colyer, against the state’s former secretary of state, Kris Kobach. Earlier this week, President Trump endorsed Kobach, who previously helped run Trump’s widely discredited Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity.

AMY GOODMAN: In Michigan, Rashida Tlaib won the Democratic primary for John Conyers’ old House seat. She could now become one of the first Muslim women elected to Congress. The Palestinian-American politician had received endorsements from many progressive groups, including Our Revolution and the Greater Detroit Democratic Socialists of America.

In another closely watched race in Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer, a former leader in the Michigan state Senate, won the Democratic gubernatorial primary. Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, who had been endorsed by Bernie Sanders, placed second. He was attempting to become the nation’s first Muslim governor. Shri Thanedar placed third in the race.

Meanwhile, in Missouri, labor unions scored a big victory as voters rejected a Republican-backed right-to-work law that would have banned compulsory union fees. And in another Missouri race, Ferguson City Councilmember Wesley Bell unseated St. Louis County prosecuting attorney Robert McCulloch, who was widely criticized for his handling of the police shooting of Michael Brown in 2014.

To talk more about Tuesday’s results and what they mean for the midterms in November, we’re joined by two guests. In Washington, D.C., Zaid Jilani is with us, staff reporter for The Intercept. In Madison, Wisconsin, John Nichols joins us, political writer for The Nation.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Zaid Jilani, let’s begin with you. Talk about the significance of these races. Which were you watching most closely?

ZAID JILANI: [inaudible] but we had also reported from Kansas, and we reported from a number of these locations. Michigan, in particular, was interesting because we had about a dozen Muslim Americans running for offices, everything from governor down through Congress to statehouse seats. In particular, we were watching Abdul El-Sayed’s race. I think in Michigan we saw a sort of a fascinating microcosm of sort of a populist base fighting with an establishment backed by both labor unions and corporations, which have sort of become the Democratic establishment’s base, as well as a wildcard named Shri Thanedar, who put $11 million of his own money into the race.

AMY GOODMAN: In that race between Whitmer and El-Sayed, talk about the significance of the win. I mean, you had Bernie Sanders going out and campaigning for the former—well, for the Detroit health commissioner, Dr. El-Sayed, also, here in New York, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was there also campaigning for him. And what that victory means for Whitmer?

ZAID JILANI: Sure. So, Whitmer was basically the quintessential establishment candidate. You know, she came from the state Legislature. She was backed by virtually every labor union in the state, with the exception, I think, of the Michigan nurses. She was the former daughter of the CEO of—the former CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield. Their lobbyists raised $144,000 for her at a single event. And she basically had the support of most elected officials across the state. So, that was—you know, that was a basic establishment lineup.

When it came to Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, I mean, we have to remember, he was polling in single digits when this race started. And he finished over 30 percent last night. So I think, compared to where he started and compared to what he was trying to do, which was score a historic win, he made a lot of progress.

But the real wildcard in this race was a man named Shri Thanedar. He put about $11 million of his own money into the race, despite the fact that he had mused to a number of political consultants about running as a Republican. He was at a Marco Rubio rally in 2016, clapping along with Marco Rubio. And yet this man already achieved more than 15 percent of the vote, basically by pumping money into Detroit, by buying off some influential African-American pastors. He did well with the African-American vote. And unfortunately, that sort of created a situation where El-Sayed and Thanedar, put together, were maybe at the percentage that would have defeated Whitmer. But his presence in the race, running ads claiming he’s the most progressive candidate in the race, running ads claiming he was for single payer, helped siphon votes that essentially allowed Whitmer to win outside of Detroit, which Thanedar dominated, and allowed Sayed to basically build a base of young people, but not build the full base that Sanders used to defeat Clinton in the state earlier in 2016.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to bring John Nichols into the conversation. John, what is your big takeaway from the results yesterday?

JOHN NICHOLS: Well, I think there’s a lot of them. It was a really exciting day politically. And, you know, I think that our media sometimes is so Washington-obsessed that it misses a lot of what’s happening out in the states. To me, the most powerful signal came from Missouri. And in Missouri, we saw a right-to-work law put on the books by a newly elected Republican governor, in combination with the Republican Legislature. We’ve seen that all over the country, in places like Wisconsin and Michigan and Indiana, as very powerful interests have pushed these right-to-work laws, which, of course, are anti-labor legislation meant to make it hard for unions to organize and collectively bargain and participate in the political process. In Missouri, however, they had a chance to put the law on the ballot, to essentially let the people overturn it. And by a 2-to-1 margin—remarkable numbers there—by a 2-to-1 margin, Missourians rejected the anti-labor law. This is one of organized labor’s biggest victories in a number of years. And it parallels what you saw in Ohio back in 2011 when they put a anti-labor law on the books and it also lost by roughly a 2-to-1 margin. So I think that’s a very, very big result and one that we have to pay a lot of attention to.

I also think that Rashida Tlaib victory in the primary to fill John Conyers’s seat in Michigan, which you’ve discussed a little bit, is a huge result. Rashida Tlaib ran as an exceptionally progressive candidate. She is an activist. She’s somebody who was a state legislator but also was in the streets working hard on a host of issues, speaking out a lot on immigrant rights, as well as refugee issues and basic economic justice issues.

Finally, the other race I thought was incredibly significant last night was the Missouri race in St. Louis for the prosecutor’s seat. Wesley Bell’s victory out there is just a remarkable breakthrough win in a prosecutor’s race that might well be the pinnacle race in the country, because this is the prosecutor who didn’t respond effectively to Ferguson, and here you have a city councilman from Ferguson running against the incumbent 28-year veteran prosecutor on a platform of criminal justice reform, addressing cash bail, raising all the critical issues, and winning not by a small margin. It looks like Wesley Bell’s victory will be in the range of 57-43. So that’s a very big victory out there. So those are three [inaudible]—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: John, I want to turn to a video of Ferguson City Councilmember Wesley Bell speaking last night.

COUNCILMEMBER WESLEY BELL: And I know it’s bigger than me. This is about change that will—again, that will not only affect North County, but South County, West County, Mid County. I mean, we’ve got to start working on bringing this region together.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, John, the impact of what we’re seeing across the country now of very progressive folks going after district attorney or prosecutor seats, and therefore having a major impact potentially on the criminal justice system?

JOHN NICHOLS: Absolutely. Our media tends to cover congressional races in Washington, D.C., fights, which is logical, and last night you had a big one in Ohio, and that was very important. But these prosecutor races around the country are contests that really touch people’s lives at the most fundamental level. Prosecutors have the ability to put people in jail or to decide not to take cases to court. They affect especially our communities in urban areas, communities with people of color, immigrants, all sorts of other folks who tend to come into contact with the law and need folks in office who are understanding, who respect their rights. And instead, we’ve seen so many prosecutors around the country who don’t show that respect. Now you’ve got a generally young generation of activist lawyers, of engaged lawyers, running for these prosecutor positions and winning them. And again I’ll emphasize, to have a 28-year veteran prosecutor turned out of office in St. Louis in the Ferguson region is just a remarkable result. And I think we have to pay a lot of attention to it. And I do agree with you. My sense is that this is something we’ll see more of in prosecutor races around the country as the year proceeds. There’s quite a few of them on the ballot this fall.

AMY GOODMAN: Zaid Jilani, can you talk about the major special congressional election between Balderson and Danny O’Connor, still too close to call? The Republicans poured $5 million into this race. Democrats poured a million dollars into it. It is traditionally a longtime Republican district. Going back to, what, 1920, only a few years were under Democratic control. And Trump went there last weekend. Balderson has declared victory. Trump has taken credit for it immediately last night. But again, the absentee ballots haven’t been counted—there are thousands of them—and the provisional ballots, and the difference is something like 1,700 votes.

ZAID JILANI: Sure. So, I think the results in Ohio mirror the results of many special elections since President Trump has been in office, in the sense that we’re seeing a tremendous Democratic advantage in traditionally Republican districts. I mean, this started really in Georgia with the special election there, which Karen Handel ultimately won. But that was also a district that was in Republican hands for decades. And I think we’ve seen that again and again. I think something like eight out of nine of these special elections ultimately went for the Republican side, but every single one was far too close for the Republicans, versus, let’s say, a normal election year.

And I think that’s a combination of two things, really, that’s at play in Ohio and is at play nationally. One is, I think the Republican base is sort of his depressed right now. You know, the same thing that sort of happened to the Democratic base in 2010, I think, is kind of happening to the Republican side here. We’re seeing sort of reduced turnout, reduced voter kind of turnout in these districts, and also we’re seeing kind of energized a sort of Democratic Party in each of these districts, although I think it’s a little bit more of the former. We’re seeing sort of a smaller Republican turnout than we are seeing sort of a larger Democratic turnout. And I think that’s definitely what was at play here in Ohio.

I’m sure Republicans at the end of the day probably will declare victory here. They’re saying it’s too close to call, though most likely it will be with the Republicans. But the fact that a district that has been Republican hands for that long was that close sort of doesn’t bode too well for the Republican Party going into the midterms.

Now, the question is: How long will that dynamic hold? I think, since 2017, it’s sort of been in that direction. But I’d be curious if after 2020, if we’ll sort of see a return to sort of the pattern, starting with the Democrats losing seats, including losing Ted Kennedy’s seat in the Senate originally to Scott Brown. And I think that that really gets to the foundational question here, which is, in sort of a first-past-the-post system where there’s two parties, when one party screws up, the other one naturally benefits. But the question is whether it will keep ping-ponging, or whether one of these parties will address core issues that matter to working people and middle-class people, you know, issues like making sure everyone has a good-paying job, making sure everyone is addressing healthcare. Healthcare is still, by far and away, the most important issue in all of these elections. When they poll people, people always say healthcare is the top thing on their mind. The question is whether the Democrats will actually be able to govern after winning what I expect them to win, quite a few elections over the next couple years. And if they’re able to do that, I think they’ll have a sustainable governing coalition. Otherwise, two years from now, I think we’ll be having the opposite conversation of Republicans winning traditionally Democratic districts or getting very close to doing so.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Zaid, in terms of this whole issue of what’s happening within the Democratic Party, clearly there have been a lot of challenges to establishment Democratic Party candidates from the left, from much more progressive candidates, but not a whole lot of them have resulted in what happened here with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the Queens congressional election. I’m wondering what you’re thinking about in terms of the balance of forces within the Democratic Party?

ZAID JILANI: Well, one, I think, on their overall scorecard, the establishment has done pretty well since 2016. You know, they prevented Keith Ellison from taking control of the political party. They defeated most of challengers. They tend to have a very strong advantage, especially among older voters, particularly like older African-American voters who they have deep relationships with, in basically every race, whether it was Tom Perriello versus Ralph Northam, Bernie Sanders versus Hillary Clinton, Chuy García versus Rahm Emanuel. Even Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez lost among traditionally African-American neighborhoods in her district. You know, that’s a really kind of a difficult point for a lot of these insurgents. And actually, I think Rashida Tlaib’s race is a good example. Her campaign was based very much on aiming at younger people and at the whiter parts of her district, because she understood that Brenda Jones, endorsed by Detroit’s mayor, endorsed by many powerful labor unions, had a very strong in to the traditionally older African-American communities. And she focused on sort of the younger, multiracial coalition, much of it white, to get her win across.

And that’s a lesson progressives really need to know. They need to know that, basically, the establishment is very good at turning out the voters it wants, right? Hillary Clinton didn’t fight for the youth vote very much in 2016, because she knew she lost it to Bernie Sanders. In 2008, when Hillary Clinton lost the South, she disinvested there and started investing heavily in the Midwest and out West. I think, going into 2020, Bernie Sanders, or maybe Elizabeth Warren, will have to think really hard. You know, if Joe Biden is leading South Carolina by a massive amount, does it really make sense to invest there? I think one of the main differences strategically between the establishment and between progressives is I think progressives feel like they have to win every vote. They certainly have to represent every person once they take office; there’s no excuse for not representing anyone, whether they voted for you or not. But winning elections ultimately is about winning every vote. Gretchen Whitmer basically abandoned Detroit because she knew that Shri Thanedar bought off a number of influential power players there and also spent tons of money on ads there, whereas I feel like El-Sayed was trying to still win that African-American vote in Detroit, despite the fact that it went strongly against Sanders in 2016 and it was strongly for Thanedar this time.

So I think, you know, there’s a combination of two things. One, the establishment still has way more money. Whitmer had labor union backing and corporate backing. And, by the way, the unions, in almost all these races, are endorsing the establishment, one, because they don’t let their members vote, and, two, because they cut off debates. A lot of them are basically Democratic Party political operatives. And the second lesson is that you need to go for the votes where you think you’re strongest, rather than trying to get every vote just for the heck of it. And I think that’s something Cynthia Nixon is going to have to think about, running against Andrew Cuomo. Cuomo has a massive lead among the older African-American vote. Does it really make a lot of sense to campaign to that population? Or does it make more sense to campaign and try to turn out millennials, try to turn out young women, try to turn out those upstate voters who aren’t so captured by the Democratic machine and feel disenfranchised from the Democratic Party? And I think that strategic question is really what’s going to keep being on progressives’ minds going into 2020.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to just quickly go to this issue of the women’s vote. According to the Center for American Women in Politics, at least 182 female major-party nominees will be running for the U.S. House. That’s the highest number ever. I want to turn to Michigan congressional candidate Rashida Tlaib, who was speaking on CBS New York. She won last night.

RASHIDA TLAIB: I felt a tremendous need to get into the ring rather than sit on the sidelines. I always tell people, in some ways, Trump being elected president of the United States was kind of like the bat signal for many women across the country, not just Muslim women, but women from all backgrounds.

AMY GOODMAN: John Nichols, your final comment on what’s taken place? Also, Kansas too close to call, Kris Kobach, the [secretary of state], still in the lead, leader of the so-called voter fraud commission, very discredited. And then I want to ask you about something that happened in Madison just in the last few days.

JOHN NICHOLS: Sure. Well, you put a few things on the table there. Let’s talk about them quickly. I do think that you’re exactly right about the rise of women in this electoral cycle. We’re seeing women nominated in races across the country and for a number of governorships. And remember, in Michigan, you now have a Democratic woman running for governor there, with, I think, a significant chance of winning that race. Rashida Tlaib, in the Detroit area, is almost certainly going to win her race. And again and again, you’re seeing these races where women are stepping up and prevailing. It is an important factor. And so many of them, like Tlaib, were drawn into this competition by their complete, I think, shock and anger at the election of Donald Trump and many of his actions since then.

You also asked about Kris Kobach. Kris Kobach is narrowly ahead. That’s going to be a race that probably goes to a recount—not certainly, but probably. And if he is nominated, this is the significant thing in Kansas. I was out there a couple weeks ago. It’s very striking that he will be running, if he’s nominated, against a woman who very easily won her Democratic primary and has, I think, a real chance of prevailing in this election, because Kobach is so offensive, not merely to Democrats and a lot of independents, but also to a good many Republicans, who simply think he is too far right and too extreme on a lot of these issues.

Finally, the one last thing I would circle around to is that in Kansas there was another race that was important, a primary, where you saw James Thompson, a candidate that Bernie Sanders and Alicia [sic] Ocasio-Cortez came in to campaign for. Thompson is a candidate who was abandoned, or at least neglected, by D.C. Democrats when he ran in a special election last year. He kept on running. He just won his primary by a 2-to-1 margin and really is one of those candidates that you should keep an eye on, because it’s in that Kansas district where the Democratic Party didn’t step up in a special election last year, but it has an opportunity to step up this year. The question is whether they will step up for a progressive populist who was aggressively backed by Bernie Sanders and Alicia [sic] Ocasio-Cortez.

AMY GOODMAN: Alexandria.

JOHN NICHOLS: Yeah, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. And remember this: Thompson is really doing a tremendous job on the ground, if you look at him. And this is something that, again, I think people have to get out and look at these candidates around the country. I’m struck by what a number of them are doing.

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