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A Rough Night for Democratic Revolutionaries

Donna Edwards and Joe Sestak went up against Chuck Schumer on Tuesday. It was no contest.

Representative Donna Edwards. Photo by Tom Williams/AP Images

Call it the revenge of the establishment. In two high-profile, down-ballot Democratic primaries on Tuesday, the favored candidates of the party mainstream emerged victorious. The wins by U.S. Senate candidates Chris Van Hollen in Maryland and Katie McGinty in Pennsylvania will bolster the hand of Chuck Schumer, the next Democratic leader in the Senate, who is working furiously to shape the caucus he’ll control in his image.

The races didn’t necessarily play out along the familiar Clinton-Sanders ideological lines currently roiling the national party, as differences were drawn more on temperament and competence. But you could definitely say that the insiders beat the outsiders. And the results speak to a painful lesson for the would-be revolutionaries in the party’s progressive wing: The establishment didn’t get to where it is without knowing how to wield political power.

In Maryland’s race to replace retiring Senator Barbara Mikulski, Van Hollen faced Donna Edwards, a progressive darling from back when she defeated centrist Democrat (and now lobbyist) Al Wynn in a House primary in 2008. Edwards would have been just the second elected African-American woman in the Senate in history, and she did have backing from the establishment EMILY’s List. But Van Hollen, a seven-term Congressman and former chair of the fundraising arm for House Democrats, boasted support from most party officials in the state and outraised Edwards by more than 2-to-1.

Van Hollen has been a golden boy of Maryland politics for decades, while Edwards came to the House from the outside, after working for progressive organizations like Public Citizen and the Center for a New Democracy. This, more than ideology or even racial identity, characterized the race. The policy contrasts between Van Hollen and Edwards were scant. And though Hillary Clinton used overwhelming support in the African-American community to pummel Bernie Sanders by 30 points in Maryland, that did not translate to the Senate race, where Van Hollen beat Edwards (who endorsed Clinton) by 14 points.

Polls were much tighter than that until the last couple weeks. That’s when Van Hollen surrogates unleashed attacks on Edwards over constituent service—dealing with district residents who need help with federal benefits or working through government bureaucracy. Edwards pushed back on this, but it became conventional wisdom that insider Van Hollen knew how to work the levers of power and help his constituents, while outsider Edwards could only throw rhetorical bombs and not operate as a full-service politician.

What’s curious about this attack is how the Service Employees International Union, which supported Edwards’s primary win over Wynn in 2008 but sided with Van Hollen this time, used it to explain their conversion to The Washington Post. (Headline: “They got Donna Edwards elected. Now they want to kick her out.”) SEIU claimed Edwards didn’t help a unionized hospital in her district fend off a non-union competitor, and it bootstrapped that to the constituent complaints from union members. The Edwards campaign also hinted that SEIU was angered because she didn’t hire one of their members as a full-time staffer.

These SEIU complaints make the constituent-service attack sound more like faulting Edwards for not back-scratching a special interest, in this case a union. And it plays on stereotypes about political outsiders being “difficult” and not understanding politics, ideology and principle aside—an argument Clinton has been making, to good effect, against Sanders. More than anything, that perception of Edwards drove Van Hollen to victory.

The Pennsylvania Senate race was even more of an insider-outsider affair. Joe Sestak lost by just two points to Pat Toomey in a heavily Republican year in 2010, and he sought a rematch this year. With a record as a former Navy Admiral and Congressman, and his near-miss six years ago, he seemed a logical choice.

But Democrats never got over Sestak defeating Arlen Specter in the Democratic primary in 2010, after Senator Specter switched parties a year earlier. They thought Sestak broke a deal the party made to clear the field for Specter if he switched from the GOP. And Sestak committed other sins: He didn’t hire any of the local Democratic consultants (his family members ran his campaign), or participate in the typical Pennsylvania political rituals (he wouldn’t give “walking around money” to Philadelphia ward leaders to get out the vote). This infuriated local party stalwarts.

So everyone looked around for somebody to challenge Sestak, finally finding Katie McGinty, a former chief of staff to Governor Tom Wolf who’d never won an election and finished dead last in the 2014 gubernatorial primary with only 7 percent of the vote. But two years later, the full force of the Democratic establishment propped McGinty up. Barack Obama and Joe Biden endorsed her; Biden even stumped for her on Monday. The Democratic Senate Campaign Committee (DSCC) spent almost $2 million on McGinty’s behalf. McGinty outspent Sestak 2-to-1, and most of that came from outside groups. A third candidate in the race, Braddock Mayor John Fetterman, was actually the Sanders-supporting progressive, but he never raised enough money to get known statewide in one of the most expensive Senate races in the nation.

Differences of opinion between Sestak and McGinty were secondary; this was purely a situation where state and national Democrats told voters to line up behind a candidate because they said so. In the end, Fetterman’s numbers held firmer than expected, as he wound up with around 20 percent of the vote. That may have come at the expense of the other outsider in the race, Sestak, providing more than the margin of victory. McGinty managed only 42 percent, but won by 10 points. She’ll go on to face Toomey in November, seeking to upend the incumbent senator.

For Chuck Schumer, the establishment victories were about control. While he didn’t formally endorse Van Hollen, he worked closely with him for years on a pet issue, spending disclosure for corporate campaign donors. Plus, the DSCC’s endorsement of McGinty is as close to an anointing by Schumer as there can be.

Politico reported that party leaders (read: Schumer) viewed Sestak and Edwards “as less reliable potential allies in the daily trench warfare against Republicans.” Sestak recalled a meeting with Schumer and others for Roll Call, saying that he was told, “You have a reputation for independence. We’re going to have to work on that.” In another recollection, Sestak was even more blunt: He said Schumer told him, “Sestak, whenever I tell you anything, the only answer is yes.”

It’s very clear that Schumer played a role in both races, and that other cases of outsiders running in Senate primaries against insiders—think Alan Grayson in Florida against Patrick Murphy—had better watch their back. Schumer wants a pliant caucus, and with progressives fascinated by the shiny object of the presidency, he’s been able to maneuver with a relatively free hand.

It’s not like progressives can’t elect solid candidates—for example, in a closely watched U.S. House primary in Maryland (for Van Hollen’s seat), Jamie Raskin overcame the biggest self-funder in House history to win. But insiders like Schumer can ensure their handpicked candidates have all the money and establishment support they need. You can counteract that with people power—but Sestak and Edwards couldn’t attract enough.