Millennials and Women—and Millennial Women—Are Dominating Democratic Primaries

Pay attention to not just how Democrats are winning primaries, but who is propelling the blue wave.

Zach Wahls was a 19-year-old engineering student when he testified to the Iowa state House of Representatives about his moms. “In classroom discussions, the question always comes to, well, can gays even raise kids,” he said in 2011, speaking before a panel of lawmakers weighing a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage in the state. “And the conversation gets quiet for a moment because most people don’t have an answer. And then I raise my hand and say I was raised by a gay couple and I’m doing pretty well.” Wahl told the committee that he was an Eagle Scout who had started his own small business. “If I was your son, Mr. Chairman,” he said. “I believe I’d make you very proud.”

Wahls became a viral star. He went on Ellen. He spoke at the Democratic National Convention. And on Tuesday, he won his Democratic primary for a deep-blue Iowa state Senate seat, all but assuring the 26-year-old of a spot in the chamber next year.

The top-line news from the biggest primary day of 2018 is that Democrats averted catastrophe. After months of anxiety among liberals (what else is new?) about being shut out in four key swing districts because of California’s convoluted top-two primary system, Democrats appear to have snagged a spot in each of the districts in question. But the story of the 2018 elections so far isn’t just the number of races Democrats are competing in, it’s who they’re choosing to fill out their ticket in November. Whether the blue wave makes it to shore remains to be seen, but it’s already starting to take shape—and it will look different than what we’ve seen in the past.

A few things stand out from Tuesday:

Millennials Are Entering Politics

Wahls is part of a deliberate youth movement in the party that has been egged on by groups like Run for Something, which recruit, train, and back millennial progressives. This trend is particularly pronounced among women candidates. Outgoing Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) was elected to the House at 28, but no woman in her twenties has ever been elected to Congress. (New York GOP Rep. Elise Stefanik was 30 when she won her seat four years ago.) There’s a decent chance that could change next year. In Iowa, Democratic state Rep. Abby Finkenauer, 28, won her primary to take on Republican Rep. Rod Blum, and Katie Hill, the 29-year-old director of a homeless non-profit, leads her top Democratic challenger in the race to take on Republican Rep. Steve Knight in California’s closely watched 25th district.

The youth movement has been happening for a while now, dating back to last year, when 31-year-old Jon Ossoff raised more money than any House candidate in history in a losing Georgia special-election campaign. Millennial candidates scored big wins in Virginia House of Delegates races last fall and Rep. Conor Lamb, the Democrat who won a special election in March for a House seat in western Pennsylvania, is just 33. Last month, Democrats nominated millennials in two Texas swing districts. In April, they backed 31-year-old Lauren Underwood in a competitive Illinois district. Like Finkenauer or Hill, she’d be the youngest member of Congress if elected.

Women Are Taking Over the Democratic Party

Perhaps the clearest trend is that women keep on winning. Here’s a fun fact from the Cook Political Report’s Dave Wasserman:

We saw more of that last night. In Iowa, which has never elected a woman to the House of Representatives, Finkenauer was joined by Cindy Axne, an activist who won the Democratic primary to take on Rep. David Young. The most notable example, though, was in Montana, where Kathleen Williams, a former state representative, won the Democratic nomination to take on Rep. Greg Gianforte, the Republican who famously attacked a reporter and lied about it to the cops on the eve of his 2017 special-election victory. Williams was outraised by two different male rivals, but cleared the field by two points.

No Native American woman has ever served in Congress. But last night in New Mexico, Deb Haaland, a longtime political consultant, won the open Democratic primary in the deep-blue first district, all but assuring that will change in January too. (Another American Indian woman, Paulette Jordan, faces much steeper odds as the Democratic nominee for governor of Idaho.)

We’ve known 2018 was poised to be the year of the woman candidate for a long time. But it’s all the more striking given what’s happening on the other side of the political spectrum, where the biggest story of the night—apart from not locking Democrats out of any California primaries—was a Republican congresswoman being forced into a primary runoff because she criticized the president for bragging about sexual assault.

“This year, it really, really is the most important contest in decades,” writes David Corn. Nothing less than American democracy is on the ballot. See the full list of our election stories here.

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  • Tim Murphy

    Tim Murphy is a senior reporter at Mother Jones. Reach him at tmurphy@motherjones.com.