John Fund: In primaries, Democrats go for diversity and Republicans go for Trump supporters

Voters in four states that held primaries Tuesday made history in key races, set up startling ideological contrasts for the November election, and showed once again that Republicans are in no mood to support opponents of President Trump. The surprise defeat of former Minnesota Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty in a comeback bid proved the president retains strong support in the GOP.

Democratic primary voters broke new diversity ground in several states. In Vermont, they nominated the first transgender candidate for governor. In Connecticut, an African-American activist who grew up in public housing won a nomination to the U.S. House of Representatives. In Minnesota, the heavily Democratic Minneapolis area appears set to send primary winner Ilhan Omar to Washington as the nation’s first Somali-American immigrant in Congress to replace Rep. Keith Ellison, who did not seek re-election.

Ellison – the deputy chairman of the Democratic National Committee, a strong supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and the first Muslim elected to Congress – had an 11th-hour scare in his attempt to win the Democratic primary for Minnesota attorney general. Last-minute accusations by his ex-girlfriend that he had engaged in domestic violence roiled his campaign. He won the primary, but no doubt the issue will return in the fall campaign.

Republicans proved once again that they will punish primary candidates who have disparaged Donald Trump. Almost everyone expected former Gov. Pawlenty to win Tuesday’s GOP primary as he attempted to retake his old job.

But Pawlenty, who ran a credible race for president in 2012, had abandoned Trump in the last stages of the 2016 presidential race after the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape, in which Trump boasted about grabbing women.

Pawlenty declared after that video came to light that he could no longer support Trump. This year’s primary voters in turn declared they were going to hand the nomination to Jeff Johnson, his underfunded and often ignored challenger who appealed directly for backing from Trump voters. Johnson will now face Democratic Rep. Tim Walz in the fall.

“The Republican Party has shifted,” Pawlenty said. “It is the era of Trump, and I’m just not a Trump-like politician.”

Republicans in Wisconsin were in turn skeptical of candidates claiming ideological conversions. Kevin Nicholson, a businessman who spent $10 million in the primary for U.S. Senate, couldn’t convince GOP voters that his former chairmanship of the Democratic Party’s national youth wing was just a college indiscretion.

State Sen. Leah Vukmir benefited from the support of Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s political machine, with Walker’s own son serving as one of her staffers. She will now face Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, one of the Senate’s most outspoken liberals.

Walker easily won the Republican primary against two challengers to run for another term as governor of Wisconsin. He will face state Schools Superintendent Tony Evers, who defeated seven other candidates in the Democratic gubernatorial primary.

Another sharp ideological contrast will come in Connecticut, a rare state where Democrats are on the ropes due to the fiscal mismanagement of retiring Democratic Gov. Dan Milloy. Democrats nominated Ned Lamont, the scion of a wealthy family, who has failed to come up with any meaningful ways in which he would govern differently from the free-spending Milloy.

By contrast, Bob Stefanowski, a former bank executive who easily won the GOP gubernatorial primary, is pledging to phase out the state’s 28-year-old income tax and reinvent state government.  If there’s a state that’s likely to move from the Democratic to the Republican column in November, it’s Connecticut.

On the lighter side, Tuesday’s primaries gave us the story of H. Brooke Paige, an eccentric Republican who filed for a place on the ballot for nearly every statewide office in Vermont other than governor. He apparently has won all of them, because in heavily Democratic Vermont no other Republican filed to run for treasurer, secretary of state, attorney general, or state auditor.

To make matters even more bizarre, Paige apparently defeated an actual candidate for the GOP nomination for Vermont’s only seat in the U.S. House. He also may win the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate, depending on late returns.

We’re told the country is increasingly sorting itself into red and blue states, where one party or the other is dominant. In Vermont, that seems to have gone to an extreme but there the Republican Party seems to have been supplanted for this election by the Party of Paige. I suspect that after his multiple losses this November, embarrassed Republicans will at least run someone else for future offices to avoid another spectacle like this.