Lessons from the 2018 Primary Elections

What can we learn from the 2018 primary elections? This article explains what the winning candidates had in common. I wrote similar articles in 2014 and 2016.

They don’t call it the establishment for nothing Establishment candidates won virtually all state senate races and most state house races. They have the inside track on fundraising, endorsements, and organization.

The moderate wing of the party was hammered, with David Maturen losing renomination, and Kathy Crawford narrowly surviving.  Daniela Garcia, Dave Pagel, Brett Roberts, Mike Callton, and Joe Haveman lost state senate primaries.  Only Chris Afendoulis and Mike McCready won primaries, advancing to competitive generals.

Some solid conservatives won primaries (Jim Runestad, Lana Theis, Tom Barrett), while others lost (Bob Genetski, Gary Glenn, and Ray Franz).  The most common winners were mainstream conservatives like Pete Lucido, Ruth Johnson, John Bizon, Kim LaSata, Aric Nesbitt, Roger Victory, Rick Outman, Jon Bumstead, and Curt VanderWall.  A similar pattern held in for state house nominations.

Experience counts Elected experience is valuable for winning candidates. All of the Republican state senate nominees were previously state representatives. State house winners Doug Tietz, Sarah Lightner, and Christine Barnes have all been elected to county commissions.

Incumbency Matters All but one incumbent Republican won renomination. Beating an incumbent in a primary is very hard. The one exception this year is Matt Hall, who spent more than 200K of his own money to defeat David Maturen.  The only other conservative challengers who beat a Republican incumbent in recent years are Tim Walberg in 2006 and Lee Chatfield in 2014. Certainly many incumbents deserve primary challenges, but conservatives have limited resources. Winning an open seat is much easier than beating an incumbent. Politicians can still be held to account when they run for other offices, as with the moderates listed above.  There are still some benefits to primary challenges, though, as they may encourage the incumbent to vote better for awhile and may help the challenger to win an open seat later.

If at first you don’t succeed  David Wolkinson and Gary Eisen both finished second in 2012 state house primaries.  This time, they won their primaries.  Matt Maddock lost a close primary for state senate in 2014, but won a big victory for state house this time.  Candidates who lost this time should look for opportunities to run again in the future.

Build a brand  David Wolkinson, Doug Tietz, Matt Maddock, Matt Hall, and Annette Glenn are known across Michigan for advocating conservative causes.  This can provide a larger fundraising base to tap when you run for office.

Don’t split the vote Conservatives did much better this year than in past years. Senate district 12 is one example where a conservative candidate likely lost due to vote splitting. Conservatives may have benefited from splits in the establishment in senate districts 30 and house districts 40 and 81.

Money doesn’t buy elections  Self-funding candidates have a bad electoral track record.  Shri Thanedar, Jim Himes, Sandy Pensler all self-funded statewide bids and lost.  Self-funder Lena Epstein did win the nomination in MI-11.

Money is essential Money does not guarantee victory, but it is essential to get your message out. This is particularly true in local elections, which are often decided by name recognition. Look at how much winning conservative candidates raised.
Wolkinson 69K
Tietz 67K
Maddock 98K
Hall 209K
Meerman 30K
Glenn 52K

The candidate who raised the most money won in 13 of 21 contested primaries in open Republican seats (fewer than in past cycles). I have written before that the minimum amount needed to be a credible candidate is $30,000. Only five winners raised less than 30K this cycle, two in races where no candidate did.  All but one winner raised at least 15K.

Exceptions are exceptional The only Republican with bad fundraising to win nomination is Gary Eisen, a firearms instructor who raised only 3K.  He had finished second in 2012, and apparently had built some support from that run.  He joins Steven Johnson (2016) and Aaron Miller (2014) as candidates who beat the odds despite poor fundraising. So it is possible for a candidate who works hard to catch on with voters without the usual advantages. But it definitely isn’t the way to bet, and it shouldn’t be an excuse to ignore the usual path to victory.

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  2 comments for “Lessons from the 2018 Primary Elections

  1. KG One
    August 10, 2018 at 5:30 am

    Question for CF: How much of a factor would you say Pres. Trump had on the Primary?

    Extrapolating that a little bit further, how much would you anticipate it will have on the General?

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    • Conservative First
      August 11, 2018 at 1:18 am

      James' polling improved a few points after Trump's endorsement.
      https://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/2018/senate/mi/michigan_senate_republican_primary-6215.html
      It doesn't seem to have made a difference in governor's race (the candidates were better known there).
      https://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/2018/governor/mi/michigan_governor_republican_primary-6216.html
      I'm sure people's views of Trump will have a big effect in the general, but what the effect is remains to be seen.

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