US primary elections draw battle lines between insiders and outsiders

Republican voters pick a dark-horse Tea Party candidate to run for the Senate in Nevada, while two f

Overnight in the US, ballots were counted and and races called in ten primary elections, with a contentious run-off election also held. After a day that included the largest set of primary elections held this year, ballots are now finalised in several key elections that will take place on 2 November this year.

The analysts are calling the elections a sea change for the Republican Party, after voters chose female candidates in several high-profile states.

But behind this headline is the prospect of an insider-versus-outsider showdown in government, and the anti-incumbent rumblings that are bound to surface in the run-up to the November general elections.

A conservative, Tea Party candidate scored a major upset against the establishment Republican candidate in Nevada. And, in California, two former CEOs won in their respective Republican primaries and will face off against Democratic career politicians for statewide office.

Voter discontent with incumbents, "politics as usual" and the growing national deficit are having an impact on sitting politicians, with some even getting shown the exit by voters. The primary election season and the November midterm elections will decide the agenda of the Democratic Party-controlled Congress, and President Barack Obama, who has been perceived as not doing enough but spending too much.

Here are the results from the races to watch:

Nevada

Sharron Angle, a former legislator and schoolteacher, shot to political stardom yesterday, defeating the GOP-endorsed candidate for US senator in the Nevada Republican primary. Angle received a major boost after getting financial support and an endorsement from the Tea Party Express, a national group devoted to supporting Tea Party candidates.

The Republican Party had backed Sue Lowden in the primary race, but she stumbled after making a gaffe about going back to the days of bartering for health care by offering the doctor chickens. Despite winning the nomination, Angle will face an uphill battle against an established Democratic incumbent. She has made several provocative stands, such as ending the social security programme for younger people and closing the department of education.

Angle will go head-to-head in November with the Democrat and Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, who won his nomination race. Reid has had a target on his back and been losing in polls against Republican candidates. But with the support of the powerful casino industry, CNN reports, Reid is well on his way to raising $25m.

Angle, on the other hand, ran her primary campaign from her own house. A win in November would be a true Cinderella story for the Tea Party candidate.

Arkansas

In Arkansas, Senator Blanche Lincoln (Dem) survived attack from the labour unions in a come-from-behind victory over the challenger Lt Gov Bill Halter. An endorsement from the former president -- and former governor of Arkansas -- Bill Clinton helped to salvage Lincoln's seat. The win also prevented her from becoming the third major incumbent to feel the wrath of voters and be dislodged from office during the primaries.

Lincoln had been forced into a run-off election with Halter which took place on Tuesday. She now admits she and her party misunderstood the spirit of voter discontent. "I would say that we may have underestimated the anti-incumbent mood," she said.

Lincoln now faces a tough battle with the Republican John Boozman until the November elections, in a usually conservative state, during a rough time for politicos in power.

California

In a high-profile contest among Republicans to occupy the seat of the departing governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the former eBay CEO Meg Whitman defeated the former Silicon Valley businessman Steve Poizner.

The governor's race now shifts to a fight between business acumen and experience in government. Whitman will do battle with the Democrat Jerry Brown, who held the governor's office twice in the 1970s. Given the state of California's budget crisis, and the anti-insider mood of the electorate, independent voters may opt for Whitman in November. Whitman is so far outside the political establishment that she has been accused of not voting in elections for two decades.

Following this trend of "inside-versus-outside", another CEO will go up against a career politico in the California race for senator. The 28-year Democratic Party veteran Barbara Boxer, who is feeling the anti-incumbent heat, will square off against the former Hewlett-Packard chief and Republican Carly Fiorina after both won their nomination races on Tuesday.

South Carolina

State Representative Nikki Haley overcame a scandalous attempt to derail her campaign to gain the Republican nod to run for South Carolina governor. Haley, however, will have to face off against Representative Gresham Barrett in a 22 June run-off, as no one in the race earned a 50 per cent majority.

Barrett and Haley are seeking to replace the scandal-ridden Republican governor Mark Sanford, who was caught last year having an affair with an Argentinian woman, and who created a new euphemism with the phrase "hiking the Appalachian Trail".

Haley herself faced allegations of infidelity in the last two weeks of campaigning, in a scandal that has shades of the whisper campaign that defeated John McCain during the 2000 Republican presidential primary in South Carolina. Haley charged that rival Republican campaigns were behind the allegations levelled against her this year. During the run-up to Tuesday's primary, one of the men who allegedly took part in the affair released phone logs, and another one even did a lie-detector test to prove his claims.

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What kind of Christian is Theresa May?

And why aren’t we questioning the vicar’s daughter on how her faith influences her politics?

“It is part of me. It is part of who I am and therefore how I approach things,” Theresa May told Kirsty Young when asked about her faith on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in November 2014. “I think it’s right that we don’t sort of flaunt these things here in British politics but it is a part of me, it’s there, and it obviously helps to frame my thinking.”

The daughter of a Church of England vicar, Rev. Hubert Brasier, May grew up an active Christian in Oxfordshire. She was so involved in parish life that she even taught some Sunday school classes. She goes on in the Desert Island Discs interview to choose the hymn When I Survey the Wondrous Cross sung by a chapel congregation, and recalls being alone in church with her parents, kneeling and singing together.

Despite her intense attachment to local CofE life, Theresa May’s role as a Christian in politics is defined more by her unwillingness to “flaunt” (in her words) her faith.

Perhaps this is partly why, as a Christian, May avoided the scrutiny directed at Lib Dem leader and evangelical Christian Tim Farron over the past week of his stance on homosexuality and abortion.

As Farron wriggled – first saying he didn’t want to make “theological pronouncements” on whether or not being gay is a sin (and then, days later, announcing that it isn’t) – May’s critics scratched their heads about why her voting record on such matters isn’t in the media spotlight.

She has a socially conservative voting record when it comes to such subjects. As the journalist and activist Owen Jones points out, she has voted against equalising the age of consent, repealing Section 28, and gay adoption (twice).

Although her more recent record on gay rights is slightly better than Farron’s – she voted in favour of same-sex marriage throughout the process, and while Farron voted against the Equality Act Sexual Orientation Regulations in 2007 (the legislation obliging bed and breakfast owners and wedding cake makers, etc, not to discriminate against gay people), May simply didn’t attend.

May has also voted for the ban on sex-selective abortions, for reducing the abortion limit to 20 weeks, abstained on three-parent babies, and against legalising assisted suicide.

“Looking at how she’s voted, it’s a slightly socially conservative position,” says Nick Spencer, Research Director of the religion and society think tank Theos. “That matches with her generally slightly more economically conservative, or non-liberal, position. But she’s not taking those views off pages of scripture or a theology textbook. What her Christianity does is orient her just slightly away from economic and social liberalism.”

Spencer has analysed how May’s faith affects her politics in his book called The Mighty and the Almighty: How Political Leaders Do God, published over Easter this year. He found that her brand of Christianity underpinned “the sense of mutual rights and responsibilities, and exercising those responsibilities through practical service”.

May’s father was an Anglo-Catholic, and Spencer points out that this tradition has roots in the Christian socialist tradition in the early 20th century. A world away from the late Victorian Methodism that fellow Christian Margaret Thatcher was raised with. “That brought with it a package of independence, hard work, probity, and economic prudence. They’re the values you’d get from a good old Gladstonian Liberal. Very different from May.”

Spencer believes May’s faith focuses her on a spirit of citizenship and communitarian values – in contrast to Thatcher proselytising the virtues of individualism during her premiership.

Cradle Christian

A big difference between May and Farron’s Christianity is that May is neither a convert nor an evangelical.

“She’s a cradle Christian, it’s deep in her bloodstream,” notes Spencer. “That means you’re very unlikely to find a command-and-control type role there, it’s not as if her faith’s going to point her in a single direction. She’s not a particularly ideological politician – it’s given her a groundwork and foundation on which her politics is built.”

This approach appears to be far more acceptable in the eyes of the public than Farron’s self-described “theological pronouncements”.  May is known to be a very private politician who keeps her personal life, including her ideas about faith, out of the headlines.

“I don’t think she has to show off, or join in, she just does it; she goes to church,” as her former cabinet colleague Cheryl Gillan put it simply to May’s biographer Rosa Prince.

The voters’ view

It’s this kind of Christianity – quiet but present, part of the fabric without imposing itself – that chimes most with British voters.

“In this country, given our history and the nature of the established Church, it's something that people recognise and understand even if they don't do it themselves,” says Katie Harrison, Director of the Faith Research Centre at polling company ComRes. “Whether or not it’s as active as it used to be, lots of people see it as a nice thing to have, and they understand a politician who talks warmly about those things. That’s probably a widely-held view.”

Although church and Sunday school attendance is falling (about 13 per cent say they regularly attend Christian religious services, aside from weddings and funerals), most current surveys of the British population find that about half still identify as Christian. And ComRes polling in January 2017 found that 52 per cent of people think it’s important that UK politicians and policy-makers have a good understanding of religion in the UK.

Perhaps this is why May, when asked by The Sunday Times last year how she makes tough decisions, felt able to mention her Christianity:  “There is something in terms of faith, I am a practising member of the Church of England and so forth, that lies behind what I do.”

“I don’t think we’re likely to react hysterically or with paranoid fear if our politicians start talking about their faith,” reflects Spencer. “What we don’t like is if they start ‘preaching’ about it.”

“Don’t do God”

So if May can speak about her personal faith, why was the nation so squeamish when Tony Blair did the same thing? Notoriously, the former Labour leader spoke so frankly about his religion when Prime Minister that his spin doctor Alastair Campbell warned: “We don’t do God.” Some of Blair’s critics accuse him of being driven to the Iraq war by his faith.

Although Blair’s faith is treated as the “watershed” of British society no longer finding public displays of religion acceptable, Spencer believes Blair’s problem was an unusual one. Like Farron, he was a convert. He famously converted to Catholicism as an adult (and by doing so after his resignation, side-stepped the question of a Catholic Prime Minister). Farron was baptised at 21. The British public is more comfortable with a leader who is culturally Christian than one who came to religion in their adulthood, who are subjected to more scrutiny.

That’s why Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May can get away with talking about their faith, according to Spencer. “Brown, a much more cultural Presbyterian, used a lot of Biblical language. Cameron talked about it all the time – but he was able to do so because he had a vague, cultural, undogmatic Anglicanism,” he tells me. “And May holds it at arm’s length and talks about being a clergyman’s daughter, in the same way Brown talked about his father’s moral compass.”

This doesn’t stop May’s hard Brexit and non-liberal domestic policy jarring with her Christian values, however. According to Harrison’s polling, Christian voters’ priorities lie in social justice, and tackling poverty at home and overseas – in contrast with the general population’s preoccupations.

Polling from 2015 (pre-Brexit, granted) found that practising Christians stated more concern about social justice (27 per cent) than immigration (14 per cent). When entering No 10, May put herself “squarely at the service of ordinary working-class people”. Perhaps it’s time for her to practise what she preaches.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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