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Key Takeaways From Senate Primaries in Kansas, Michigan and Missouri


It is still primary season. And in yesterday's contests, progressive Democrats scored two high-profile victories while a conservative aligned with President Trump lost to a more mainstream Republican in Kansas. NPR's Susan Davis is here to sort through results and tell us what this might signal about November.

Hi, Sue.


SHAPIRO: Let's start with the Republican contest, where former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach lost the GOP Senate primary to Congressman Roger Marshall. Today you wrote that this is a win for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. How so?

DAVIS: Well, Marshall was McConnell's preferred candidate. The Senate Leadership Fund, which is an outside super PAC aligned with the leader, spent over $2 million to help Marshall win. McConnell, like many Republicans, believed that if Kobach had won, he would have tanked the party's chances of holding onto that seat in November and very likely could have taken the majority down with it.

A word of caution here, though - Marshall is still not a sure bet. There's still interesting things happening in Kansas, and that race looks like it could still be competitive. And I've talked to GOP strategists who say it's going to - you know, they're going to have to keep investing in Kansas to keep it in their column. But ultimately, this is a seat that will be harder for Democrats to win. And the battle for the Senate carries on.

SHAPIRO: And then let's shift to what happened in the Democratic Party yesterday, which was just remarkable. In the primary in the St. Louis area in Missouri, incumbent Congressman William Lacy Clay lost to progressive Black Lives Matter activist Cori Bush, who ran to his left. Incumbents so rarely lose primaries. How did she pull it off?

DAVIS: Well, this was, first, a rematch. She ran and lost against Clay in 2018 by 20 points. It wasn't even close two years ago, especially in a year that was really friendly to Democratic women candidates. She ran again - big comeback - beat him on Tuesday by three points. It is part of a trend that we've seen playing out this year in House Democratic primaries, where progressives, especially Black progressives, are getting much more traction among Democratic voters than they had in the past. We saw that happen in New York where three young Black male progressive candidates won in contested primaries - and yet another example of where an incumbent was defeated with Eliot Engel.

SHAPIRO: In this specific case, Clay was not only an incumbent. His family was a Black political dynasty in Missouri. His father represented the seat before he did for three decades.

DAVIS: Yeah. The Clay family is second only to the Dingell family in terms of long legacies in Congress. And beating an incumbent is probably the hardest thing you can do in politics. But this year, Clay is the seventh incumbent to lose. There have been four Republicans and now three Democrats. And that doesn't sound like a big number - seven - when you think there's 435 members of Congress, but it's a ton. Bloomberg analyst Greg Giroux calculated that it's the most incumbents to lose in a non-redistricting year since 1974.


DAVIS: I've talked to Democrats a lot about this this cycle, and they point to a couple factors. They say the pandemic is just really challenging the way voters think of government and how they want it in their lives. And of course, the racial justice protests that have come from the - following the death of George Floyd have really had a political impact here. Bush in this case - she's a Black woman. She's a well-known local activist. She started in activism during the Ferguson protests back in 2014. And this was just her right moment. She was the right candidate at the right time in the right district.

SHAPIRO: So when you pull back and look at these primary upsets, does it suggest that the Democratic Party as a whole is shifting to the left?

DAVIS: You know, it's complicated because Democrats have the majority because they were able to win in swing seats with moderate districts. That's where the party needs to win to have a majority. But these progressive candidates are winning in very safe Democratic seats. They aren't in contention in November. And it is definitely emboldening the progressive wing of the party that sees itself as the rising force.

SHAPIRO: Where do you see that in action?

DAVIS: If you look at another win - Tuesday, Michigan Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, better known as one of the members of the so-called squad - she had a primary challenge from the center. And she was able to beat that back by 30 points.


DAVIS: I think we're just seeing that the people that are losing in primary challenges are being replaced by people, in large part, who are more ideological than they are. And it's further evidence of something that we know is true about Congress. And each passing election, it is getting more and more polarized.

SHAPIRO: That is NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis.

Thanks, Sue.

DAVIS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Susan Davis
Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.
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