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6 takeaways from primaries in Pennsylvania, North Carolina and more

<i>Carolyn Kaster/AP</i><br/>Pennsylvania primary takeaways. Republicans chose an election denier as their candidate for governor in this year's midterm elections. State Sen. Doug Mastriano is pictured with Jenna Ellis in Chambersburg
Carolyn Kaster/AP
Pennsylvania primary takeaways. Republicans chose an election denier as their candidate for governor in this year's midterm elections. State Sen. Doug Mastriano is pictured with Jenna Ellis in Chambersburg

By Eric Bradner, Dan Merica and Gregory Krieg, CNN

Pennsylvania Republicans chose an election denier Tuesday as their candidate for governor in this year’s midterm elections — but appear to have rejected a far-right Senate contender.

As of early Wednesday, Mehmet Oz, the celebrity heart surgeon endorsed by former President Donald Trump, and retired hedge fund executive David McCormick are locked in a neck-and-neck battle in the Republican Senate primary that could take days to sort out. Conservative Kathy Barnette, who many Republican officials worried would surge past Oz and McCormick despite concerns about her electability, was in third place.

The winner of that race will face Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who cruised in the Democratic primary despite being hospitalized after suffering a stroke days earlier, in a race that both parties see as crucial in the battle for control of the Senate.

Pennsylvania was one of five states to hold primaries on Tuesday. In North Carolina, Republican Rep. Madison Cawthorn was narrowly defeated amid a cloud of scandal. In Idaho, Gov. Brad Little fended off a challenge from his No. 2. And in Oregon, a moderate Democrat trailed in a congressional primary.

Here are six takeaways from Tuesday’s primaries:

Tight Senate primary in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania continued counting ballots in its Republican Senate primary Wednesday morning. The final outcome was delayed in part by a printing error in Lancaster County that officials there said left about 22,000 ballots unable to be read by scanners.

The first person Oz thanked during a speech at his election night party outside of his own family was Trump, whose endorsement catapulted him in a wide-open race.

But while Trump personally helped Oz, Trumpism — the evolution of the forces the former President unleashed within the GOP — could have hurt him. Conservative Kathy Barnette ran as a Trump heir, seizing on grassroots Republican antipathy towards Oz. And though Barnette is third in the race as the last ballots are counted, she appears to have sapped the celebrity doctor of needed votes.

It’s a dynamic unique to Republican primaries: Trump is such an all-consuming force in the GOP that when the Trump-endorsed candidate and those looking to take Trumpism even further aren’t the same person, it gives space to a less Trump-inspired candidate like McCormick.

And it’s a significant reason that the race remains too close to call.

An election denier could have power over Pennsylvania’s 2024 election

In state Sen. Doug Mastriano, Pennsylvania Republicans have nominated for governor a leading voice advancing Trump’s lies about election fraud — raising the possibility that someone who already attempted to overturn voters’ will in 2020 would have power over the election machinery of one of the nation’s most important presidential battleground states in 2024.

The Trump-endorsed Mastriano will face Democratic state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who has consistently defended Pennsylvania’s election process and 2020 results, in the race to replace term-limited Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.

The winner could play an important role in the 2024 election: In Pennsylvania, the governor appoints the secretary of state — the person in charge of running Pennsylvania’s elections and signing off on its electors.

Mastriano was in Washington for the “Stop the Steal” rally ahead of the insurrection at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. He attempted to conduct an Arizona-style partisan review of the 2020 election results in Pennsylvania, and made debunked conspiracy theories about the election a centerpiece of his campaign.

National Republicans kept Mastriano at arm’s length on Tuesday night. But Trump remains the gravitational force within the GOP, and Mastriano’s primary win shows that those willing to do his bidding could have much more power to thwart voters’ will in 2024 than they did in 2020.

The burned bridges of Madison Cawthorn

Despite a late assist from Trump, Rep. Madison Cawthorn could not survive his series of scandals — or the GOP’s efforts to turn him into an example for other far-right figures. He was ousted from his western North Carolina congressional seat by state Sen. Chuck Edwards.

The tactics behind the scorched-earth approach of Cawthorn’s intra-party critics were key to his defeat. Sen. Thom Tillis and other top North Carolina Republicans didn’t just vocally denounce Cawthorn — they identified and rallied around a single opponent in the eight-candidate field. Though the anti-Cawthorn vote was fractured among several contenders, the efforts to elevate Edwards as the main alternative paid off.

Cawthorn’s loss was also a loss for Trump, who had taken to his own social media network, Truth Social, to advocate for the 26-year-old congressman Sunday night. Trump wrote: “Recently, he made some foolish mistakes, which I don’t believe he’ll make again…let’s give Madison a second chance!”

The evolution of Democratic ‘electability’

What it means to be a top Democratic recruit is changing.

On Tuesday night, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a 6-foot, 8-inch, bald, tattooed former mayor known for wearing shorts and hoodies, ran away with the Pennsylvania Democratic Senate primary. In North Carolina, former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley largely cleared the primary field and coasted to a nomination that could make her the state’s first Black senator.

Their wins are part of a change within the Democratic Party, where what constituted a good recruit in cycles past meant someone who looked a lot more like the people Fetterman and Beasley beat.

In Pennsylvania, Fetterman — whom Democratic voters viewed as authentic and as a fighter — trounced Rep. Conor Lamb, a polished Marine veteran who has beaten Republicans in tough races and has a warm relationship with President Joe Biden.

And in North Carolina, Beasley was so widely seen as the leading candidate that another rising Democratic star who would have been a top recruit in years past, state senator and Army National Guardsman Jeff Jackson, ended his campaign months before the primary — getting behind Beasley while running for a House seat instead.

Whether what appeals to Democratic primary voters will translate to electability in November in the two races for open seats vacated by retiring Republicans could play a key role in determining which party controls the Senate next year.

Far-right Idaho gubernatorial candidate falls flat

Idaho Gov. Brad Little easily fended off an effort to unseat him by his own lieutenant governor, Janice McGeachin.

McGeachin — who was elected lieutenant governor separately from Little; in Idaho the two jobs are chosen in their own contests rather than as a single ticket — was part of a series of far-right candidates who had sought to take control of the state government. She was endorsed by Trump, even though Little had also backed Trump’s election lies and signed on to the Texas legal effort to overturn some states’ results in 2020.

McGeachin had made headlines by using her status as acting governor when Little briefly traveled out-of-state to implement coronavirus-related executive orders barring mask and vaccine mandates. Little immediately rescinded those orders upon his return.

Little will face Democrat Stephen Heidt in November. Idaho hasn’t elected a Democratic governor since 1990.

Outside groups get modest return on big Democratic House primary bet

Outside groups showered moderate Democratic candidates in spending ahead of races in North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Oregon in a bid to overrun progressive outsiders and blunt the left’s recent momentum in House primaries.

But with almost all the votes in, the returns on those investments appear to be mixed. A pair of targeted progressive candidates in North Carolina lost badly, while Summer Lee, a state representative from Pennsylvania vying to become the first Black woman elected to Congress from the commonwealth, was in a tight race with her moderate rival in Pittsburgh’s 12th District.

Lee faced more than $3 million in spending from the United Democracy Project, a super PAC aligned with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and Democratic Majority for Israel. She received considerable support from Justice Democrats and the Working Families Party, but those groups were still heavily outspent.

In Oregon, incumbent Rep. Kurt Schrader, who had Biden’s endorsement along with a pair of big spending groups — Center Forward, a pharmaceutical-backed PAC, and Mainstream Democrats, funded by LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman — bolstering his campaign, was trailing progressive challenger Jamie McLeod-Skinner, as of Wednesday morning.

The implications of Tuesday’s results will also weigh on next week’s blockbuster runoff in Texas, where Jessica Cisneros is trying to unseat moderate incumbent Rep. Henry Cuellar, another big-time beneficiary of outside money organizations.

This story has been updated with additional developments.

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