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May 27, 2018

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Liberal tilt in some primaries a sign of Democratic fervor

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Nati Harnik / AP

Democratic 2nd District House candidate Kara Eastman hugs her campaign manager Ben Onkka, in Omaha, Neb., Tuesday, May 15, 2018, as she holds a slim lead over Brad Ashford in the primary election. Omaha-area voters are set to pick a Democratic nominee Tuesday who will challenge U.S. Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., after the congressman claimed the seat from Democrats two years ago.

HARRISBURG, Pa. — Primary election season is still young, but the liberal wing of the Democratic Party is already celebrating.

Democratic voters have chosen decidedly liberal candidates in several closely watched congressional primary elections, a sign that the left is driving much of Democrats' enthusiasm and may be winning the tug of war with moderates over the direction of the party.

Primary voters' embrace of liberal candidates in Nebraska and Pennsylvania on Tuesday underscored the trend and demonstrated the risks.

In Omaha, Democrat Kara Eastman edged out moderate Brad Ashford by casting herself as a progressive in Nebraska's lone urban district, supporting single-payer, government-run health insurance and a ban on assault weapons.

But some Democrats argue candidates like Eastman are pulling the party too far to the left for a district that, except for Ashford's lone term two years ago, has been held for more than 20 years by Republicans in the heart of a conservative state. Eastman, whose victory surprised top Democratic leaders, argues otherwise.

"The Democratic base was looking for an actual Democrat who represents their values," Eastman told The Associated Press. "For years we've been running conservative Democrats and seeing them lose."

In Pennsylvania, Scott Wallace, a wealthy donor to liberal causes, beat out Rachel Reddick, a former Republican and Navy veteran, in a three-way race in suburban Bucks County, north of Philadelphia. Lesser-known environmentalist Steve Bacher finished a distant third.

Reddick stressed her conversion to the Democratic Party, while Wallace, a grandson of former Vice President Henry Wallace, stressed his long-standing loyalty to party ideals, including single-payer health care.

In Allentown, Pennsylvania, lawyer Susan Wild narrowly won in the crowded Democratic primary in the state's swing-voting 7th Congressional District.

Wild, who supports universal health care and an assault weapons ban, beat out moderate John Morganelli, who holds more conservative views on abortion rights and immigration.

The results reflect voters' shifting thinking on ideas long considered too liberal to appeal to the middle. Promoting gun control, for instance, is not viewed as the deal breaker with moderates it might have been a decade ago, Democratic state Rep. Peter Schweyer of Allentown said.

"People are less afraid to be as vocal about it as they once were," said Schweyer, who backed Wild.

National liberal groups cheered Democratic Idaho gubernatorial candidate Paulette Jordan's win in Tuesday's primary. The 38-year-old state representative was endorsed by the liberal, anti-Trump group Indivisible.

Unlike the districts in Nebraska and Pennsylvania, Idaho is a Republican-heavy state where the GOP gubernatorial nominee, Brad Little, would be the heavy favorite to win in November.

The three House seats in Pennsylvania and Nebraska are seen as key to the roughly two dozen seats that Democrats must gain in November to claim a House majority.

Democrats are looking first to 25 districts where Republican Donald Trump fell short of Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, like the two Pennsylvania districts.

Several of those are open seats because of the dozens of Republican members choosing to retire rather than seeking re-election amid headwinds for the party.

As GOP retirements have mounted, Democrats have begun looking to a roughly 100 more districts, including the Nebraska district, where Trump narrowly won, demonstrating the potential breadth of the battleground this fall.

While Ashford had sought public office as a Republican and later a Democrat for more than 30 years, Eastman's profile as the head of a nonprofit group helped her connect with some voters on Omaha's African-American-heavy north side, said Precious McKesson, the coalitions director for the Nebraska Democratic Party.

"You had someone who had already been there before in Ashford," McKesson said. "But then you had someone in Kara who is a social worker, who has worked on causes behind the scenes, someone we could relate to. I think that's what made more people come out for her."

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the national House campaign arm of the Democratic National Committee, had backed Ashford and dispatched national figures such as California Rep. Adam Schiff to Omaha to raise money for him.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who raised $16 million for House Democrats in the first quarter of 2018, had said as late as last week that she expected Ashford to win.

Some of Tuesday's results, at least in Nebraska, jolted House Democrats in Washington, who expressed surprise after huddling privately Wednesday.

They were seen as a gift to the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC that supports Republican House members.

"In suburban districts you cannot have candidates who are to the left of Bernie Sanders," group spokeswoman Courtney Alexander said.

But even Alexander would not go so far as to say Eastman's win leaves the Republican incumbent, Rep. Don Bacon, in the clear.

Crystal Rhoades, Democratic Party chairwoman for Douglas County, Nebraska, said her party has assumed wrongly the way to win is by offering voters a conservative Democrat.

"There's been a fundamental misreading of this district for a long time," she said. "The answer is turnout, turnout, turnout."