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Women still firmly in control of November narrative

Voters exit a polling station on primary election

Voters exit a polling station on primary election day in Phoenix on Aug. 28, 2018. Credit: AP / Ross D. Franklin

The primary election calendar grinds on with a modest surprise in Massachusetts’ 7th District, where Ayanna Pressley defeated incumbent House Democrat Michael Capuano on Tuesday.

The upset might remind people of the New York district where Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez knocked off incumbent Joseph Crowley, but the differences are significant. Ocasio-Cortez was a first-time candidate who ran as a socialist against a relatively moderate liberal. Pressley has been on the Boston City Council since 2010, and while she’s certainly a solid liberal, so was Capuano. Ocasio-Cortez was really an outsider; Pressley is not.

What they do have in common is that they are both women, and both are probably better ethnic matches for the changing districts they might represent than the men they defeated. Pressley would be the first black woman ever in the Massachusetts congressional delegation, a group that has never had many women at all. They also beat older incumbents: Capuano is 66; Crowley is 56. Both had probably failed at least a bit to keep up with their districts, and the younger candidates took advantage.

There’s still no real sign we’re in the midst of a movement similar at all to what the Tea Party was for Republicans in 2010. For the most part, the energy within the Democratic Party (most notably among women of various ethnic groups) doesn’t seem to have any of the tear-it-down attitude that Tea Partiers had against incumbents of both parties. Nor do they seem interested in tilting at windmills. Both of these defeated incumbents represent absolutely safe Democratic districts, so neither seat has been put at risk for the party. Pressley, in particular, is well-prepared to be a productive member of the House; they’re also not risking a lot of legislative quality, if any.

I do expect that if Democrats win big in November, we’ll eventually find out that a small number of the newly elected group are wildly unfit to hold office. That happens in all landslides. But from what we know so far, it appears that any such misfires will be flukes, not a result of systematically making poor choices.

One thing that these results might have in common with 2010 Republicans could be an almost accidental effect of the political context. Democratic turnout has been way up this year, just as Republican turnout was high in 2010. That means that a lot of infrequent, or even new, voters are showing up, and it’s possible that some of them have a little less loyalty to incumbents just because they don’t know them. That said, Capuano remains only the second Democratic House incumbent defeated during this cycle, so maybe there’s no broader lesson to be learned.

Other than that, we’re ending the nomination cycle exactly the way it started: with Democratic voters eager to vote for women. It’s going to be very interesting to see how that plays out in November.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.