The spate of credible Democratic primary challengers creating headaches is unusual for the party, at least in recent history. Over the past decade, only one election year (2010) featured a string of competitive Democratic Senate primaries in battleground states. More often than not, the party’s congressional leaders have been successful in anointing favored candidates without much interference from the outside. When Democrats have faced competitive Senate primaries, they’ve usually been in liberal states where the general election is a fait accompli. By contrast, four of next year's five biggest primaries are in battleground races where a divisive fight for the nomination could hurt the eventual Democratic nominee.
With the compelling presidential race sucking up all the media oxygen lately, the battle for the Senate hasn’t gotten much attention. But these primaries are worth following to get a measure for how deep the Democratic Party’s divisions are. In a normal year, the front-runners would be expected to coast. In another year, the notion of a 30-year-old political novice taking on a brand-name politician would be seen as a joke. Before the rise of Donald Trump as a politician, few would entertain the notion of a boorish multi-millionaire beating the party’s endorsed candidate in Florida. But this is not shaping up to be a normal political environment.
The most interesting test will be in Pennsylvania, a race critical to Democratic hopes of retaking the Senate. Party leaders got so tired of the unpredictability of former Rep. Joe Sestak, the highest-ranked military officer to ever serve in Congress, that they recruited Katie McGinty, the fourth-place finisher in last year’s gubernatorial primary. On paper, Sestak is an accomplished candidate as a decorated military veteran, former Philadelphia-area congressman, and someone who nearly bucked the 2010 Republican wave in the Keystone State. He fits the political moment as a political outsider willing to buck the party establishment—so much so that he wouldn’t even tell the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee about his campaign launch.
But wary of his unconventional campaign approach, party leaders felt it was worth the risk to recruit McGinty, a more conventional politician (most recently, she served as Gov. Tom Wolf’s chief of staff) even though it’s sparking a heated Democratic primary. One senior Democratic official worried about Sestak’s electability still acknowledged that he holds even odds to win the nomination. And given the public’s growing distaste of establishment politicians, his outsider persona would certainly match the current political moment.
If Pennsylvania’s Senate primary offers a contrast in candidates’ backgrounds, the Florida race between two wildly differing congressmen—DSCC-backed Patrick Murphy and progressive pugilist Alan Grayson—will be a jarring contrast in ideology. Murphy is one of the most centrist Democratic officeholders in Congress, winning past support from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Because of that, party leaders view him as the most electable candidate to pick up a seat in a crucial battleground state. But Grayson, who has built a national profile thanks to his scathing, over-the-top attacks against Republicans, is betting that, like Trump, he’s the candidate that best appeals to the party’s base.