A final stretch of primaries for state and federal offices kicks off Tuesday, setting the stage for a six-week battle inside a divided Republican Party pitting candidates loyal to former president Donald Trump and his false election claims against rivals looking to move past those fights in this fall’s midterm elections.
Two gubernatorial candidates in Arizona and Wisconsin backed by Trump will face off this month against those endorsed by former vice president Mike Pence, who split with Trump after refusing pressure to reject the results of the 2020 presidential race. Four members of Congress who voted to impeach Trump after his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol are also trying to beat back challengers who embrace Trump’s false claims that he won. And an Arizona lawmaker who led calls to “decertify” the 2020 results and wants to ban the use of voting machines may win the GOP nomination Tuesday to oversee elections in a key battleground for 2024.
With less than 100 days to go until the November midterms, lasting rifts over the past election will take center stage as some Republicans hope to focus on unifying concerns such as inflation to regain control of Congress. Trying to overcome those economic head winds and low approval ratings for President Biden, Democrats argue the GOP’s candidates — and their campaigns against the democratic process itself — will prove too extreme for general-election voters. Some Republicans also worry about nominating divisive candidates in the coming weeks.
Tuesday’s contests in Arizona, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri and Washington state could elevate more Republicans who, like Trump, have baselessly undermined faith in elections and pitch themselves as populist fighters against not just Democrats but the GOP establishment.
“I think what is going to be clarified here over the next few weeks, have the lunatics really taken over the asylum? … Are you going to see election truthers taking over the voting mechanisms up and down the ballot?” said Jon Reinish, a Democratic consultant. “That’s going to present the American people with a real choice to make that is going to be very stark.”
In many races, the GOP candidates diverge on tone rather than policy.
“Everybody is pro-gun, pro-life, pro-border, pro-low tax, low regulation. The fight is not about what we stand for, but who we are,” said Stan Barnes, a former state senator and GOP strategist in Arizona — which is shaping up to be “a perfect political science experiment about the future of the Republican Party.”
In Arizona, Republican candidates for Senate, governor, attorney general and secretary of state have all campaigned heavily on their alignment with Trump while promoting his false narrative of the 2020 election. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R), co-chair of the Republican Governors Association, has thrown his weight behind a more traditional conservative candidate for governor, developer Karrin Taylor Robson, as well as a secretary of state candidate, Beau Lane, who acknowledges that Biden won in 2020.
Pence, a friend and ally of Ducey, also endorsed Taylor Robson over Trump’s favored candidate, former TV anchor Kari Lake. Lake has said she would not have affirmed Biden’s victory — as Ducey did — and has already claimed there is “some stealing going on” in the 2022 election without providing evidence. In split-screen campaign events last month, Trump and Pence stumped for their candidates on the same Friday as both consider a run for the presidency in 2024.
A similar scene played out this spring in Georgia, where Trump recruited former senator David Perdue to challenge onetime ally Gov. Brian Kemp (R) for his decision to certify Trump’s election loss. Kemp won overwhelmingly with Pence’s endorsement. But the Arizona governor’s race appears to be far more competitive.
In Missouri, Trump promised Monday to issue a last-minute endorsement in the Senate primary — only to cast his lot behind “Eric” without identifying a surname, effectively leaving the door open to either Eric Greitens or state Attorney General Eric Schmitt, both of whom lobbied for his support. Greitens resigned from the governor’s office in scandal and, as a Senate candidate, denied fresh allegations of abuse from his former wife — stoking Republican fears he could an imperil an otherwise safe seat and leading to an establishment-led effort to defeat him.
In Arizona, state lawmaker Mark Finchem is running for secretary of state — part of an official slate of election deniers seeking oversight of voting in 2024. Other members of that coalition include Jim Marchant, who won the Republican nomination for secretary of state in Nevada, and Kristina Karamo, the GOP’s pick for secretary of state in Michigan.
Finchem has sought to upend Arizona’s popular and well-established mail voting system and was photographed near the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, when a pro-Trump mob stormed the building to disrupt certification of the 2020 election. He recently embraced the support of Andrew Torba, the founder of a far-right social media site, who has said non-Christians are not real conservatives.
Republicans warned against writing off candidates like Finchem and Lake in the general election, as GOP candidates tap into a favorable political climate nationwide. “My Democratic friends in Arizona are pulling for [Lake and Finchem] and believe that those are the candidates they want to run against,” said Barnes, the GOP strategist. “But I think they may regret that.”
Democrats, meanwhile, have pursued a controversial strategy in some races of seeking to elevate GOP campaigns that they view as more extreme, and thus more beatable, in November. In Michigan, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has spent $435,000 on ads boosting an election-denier challenger to Rep. Peter Meijer, one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump in 2021. He is in a tight race Tuesday with John Gibbs, a former Trump administration official.
In Washington state, Reps. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R) and Dan Newhouse (R) are also hoping Tuesday to fend off critics of their votes to impeach; a top-two, all-party primary system could ease their path.
Some Republicans see incumbents who have broken with Trump as their most electable candidates in the fall, and Tuesday could intensify the criticisms that Trump has hurt the party’s chances with his endorsements. Some of his chosen candidates are struggling in crucial swing-state races such as Pennsylvania’s Senate contest.
Jason Roe, a strategist and former executive director of the Michigan GOP, said the party’s growing interest in trying to flip a Senate seat in Democratic-leaning Washington state underscores their candidates’ struggles in swing states.
“It doesn’t give you a lot of confidence that we are holding the best hand at this moment,” he said with a laugh.
State legislative primaries in Michigan will also pit some of Trump’s favored candidates against those backed by a former Cabinet member and major GOP donor, Betsy DeVos, as well as one of his most vocal GOP critics: Rep. Adam Kinzinger (Ill.), who also voted to impeach.
Jase Bolger, a former GOP speaker for the Michigan House of Representatives, predicted the party will coalesce behind its nominees despite the infighting. He recalled the party’s divisions in 2010, when Republicans flipped the House of Representatives after members of the conservative “tea party” movement had railed against the GOP establishment. “Again, those differences, those struggles paled in comparison to the differences in the general election,” Bolger said.
Trump and Pence have endorsed different candidates in the Wisconsin GOP gubernatorial primary, which will be held Aug. 9. Trump’s pick, Tim Michels, a construction executive, has perpetuated the falsehood that widespread voter fraud cost Trump the election, though Michels has refused to say whether he would support a GOP effort in the state legislature to retroactively decertify Biden’s 2020 victory, saying recently that it wasn’t “a priority.”
Michels will face former lieutenant governor Rebecca Kleefisch, who earned Pence’s endorsement last week, and state Rep. Tim Ramthun in the primary next week. Kleefisch has also questioned the 2020 results, but has called overturning Wisconsin’s results impossible.
The winner will face Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, who currently is a buffer to the GOP legislature’s ambitions, setting up one of the most high-stakes gubernatorial races in the country.
Wisconsin Democrats will also decide who will take on GOP Sen. Ron Johnson in November. Last week, several candidates in a crowded Democratic primary stepped aside, effectively clearing the way for Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes to win the party’s nomination.
The following week there are dramatic showdowns in Wyoming and Alaska. Of all the Republicans up for reelection this year, there’s likely no one Trump wants to beat more than Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.). Since the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riots, Cheney has spoken out about Trump’s culpability, voted to impeach him over it and has helped lead the House committee investigating the former president’s role in the attack. Cheney is up against Harriet Hageman, who has the full weight of Trump and his allies behind her.
The Aug. 16 election will also test the endurance of Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor, who was John McCain’s running mate in the 2008 presidential election. Palin is running to succeed the late congressman Don Young, who died in March after nearly 50 years in the House. Alaska voters will decide in a special election whether to send her to Washington to fill the last few months of Young’s term and whether she should advance past the primary to vie for the seat in the November election.
The last major day of primary elections is Aug. 23, in Florida and New York, two states that were rankled by the redistricting that occurs after the once-a-decade U.S. Census. In Florida, a stalemate between state lawmakers and Gov. Ron DeSantis ended with the Republican governor getting the map he wanted — one that added opportunities for Republicans to pick up seats and diminished the influence of Black voters in two House districts. Two Democratic House members, Reps. Charlie Crist and Val Demings, are giving up their seats to run for higher office against DeSantis and Sen. Marco Rubio (R), respectively.
New York’s congressional primary was delayed over a protracted legal battle over new congressional maps drawn by the state’s Democratic lawmakers. A judge found the map unconstitutional and appointed an outside mapmaker to redraw it. The result thrust two titans of the New York congressional delegation, Democratic Reps. Jerry Nadler and Carolyn B. Maloney, into an unwanted primary matchup. The two octogenarians have served side-by-side in Congress for 30 years. The district reshuffling complicated other races in and around New York City, forcing incumbents to run outside of their current districts and into competitive primaries.
Voters in Upstate New York will also decide a special election to fill the seat Democratic congressman Antonio Delgado left open when he was picked to become the state’s lieutenant governor. The race is the first competitive Democrat vs. Republican race since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, which could provide an early indication of whether the decision motivated Democrats and swing voters.
“If Democrats perform better than the Biden-Trump margin in that seat, perhaps this Democratic surge is durable,” said David Wasserman, a political prognosticator at Cook Political Report.