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The Trailer: A guide to Tuesday's runoffs and primaries

In this edition: A guide to Tuesday's primaries and runoffs, a look at the ads shaping those races, and, as was inevitable, a look at jockeying ahead of the 2024 presidential primary.

The commercialization of Bastille Day distracts us from the holiday's true meaning, and this is The Trailer.

The last primaries of July are busier than they could have been. On an ordinary primary calendar, Texas and Alabama would have picked their nominees months ago, and we'd be watching a couple of races in Maine.

But, if you're just tuning in, nothing is normal about this year. Texas and Alabama delayed their runoffs as a part of their responses to the coronavirus pandemic, adding many expensive weeks to these primaries and altering some of the dynamics on the ground. When it's over, we'll know whether national Democrats got every Senate candidate they wanted this cycle, or fell short; we'll know whether the president's former physician was able to get redemption in a Texas House race; and we'll know whether the president or Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas won a curious tug-of-war game along the Rio Grande.

Polls close nearly across most of the counties holding primaries by 8 p.m. Eastern, with Texas's two westernmost counties closing an hour later. From East to West, here's what to watch.

In Maine, each party will get its nominee in a competitive race for Congress. Democrats will choose a Senate candidate to face Sen. Susan Collins, and while State House Speaker Sara Gideon is already endorsed by the national party, she has two opponents who have portrayed her, with difficulty, as the sort of “establishment” candidate who would fumble the seat away. Last year, Republicans spent a little money to promote Betsy Sweet, an activist who won the support of the liberal group Democracy for America. 

“Aim for big change, not just to unseat Collins,” Sweet said in the candidates' final debate last week. But neither Sweet nor attorney Bre Kidman has attracted the sort of attention that's boosted liberal challengers in House races; between them, they entered Election Day with less than $50,000 left to spend.

Republicans have their own showdown in the 2nd Congressional District, the most rural seat flipped by Democrats in the 2018 midterm. (End to end, the district is larger than the state of West Virginia.) Eric Brakey, a libertarian-leaning former state legislator who ran for Senate two years ago, raised nearly $800,000 for the race and has spent most of it to fend off businessman Dale Crafts, who's endorsed by former governor Paul LePage, and former TV reporter Adrienne Bennett. As in so many races this cycle, the rivals have tried to find an advantage by portraying their opponent (usually Brakey) as potentially disloyal to the president.

Presidential loyalty, of course, is the dominant issue in Alabama — and not just in the Senate runoff. Delayed from March 31 to this week by the covid-19 pandemic, that race's dynamics have barely changed, with former attorney general Jeff Sessions running as a nationalist conservative with results, and former University of Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville running as a pro-Trump outsider.

“Jeff Sessions quit on the president, and he failed Alabama,” Tuberville said in one of his first TV ads after the runoff began.

Sessions trailed Tuberville in the primary, and the coach never lost control of the race, refusing to debate a rival who won four terms in the Senate before joining the Trump administration. Trump never made a campaign trip to Alabama, and Tuberville has run out the clock, disappearing from the campaign trail since his bus tour ended last month.

Alabama's 1st and 2nd districts will also get Republican nominees today. In the 1st District, which covers the Gulf Coast, Mobile County commissioner Jerry Carl has accused former state senator Bill Hightower of “Never Trump” sympathies; Hightower has pushed back with video evidence of him stumping for Trump in 2016. In the neighboring 2nd District, former state representative Barry Moore has reminded Republicans that he was the first Alabama elected official to back Trump, while opponent Jeff Coleman has fired back by pointing out that the Club for Growth, which now backs Moore and Trump, opposed Trump in 2016. 

Back in March's primary, Hightower and Carl had roughly the same level of support, while Coleman ran far ahead of Moore. Democrats have a runoff of their own in the 1st District, between Marine veteran James Averhart and Kiani Gardner, but Trump carried the district by 30 points in 2016, and the national party isn't focused on it this year.

That couldn't be less true of Texas, where Democrats see the potential for breakthroughs this year if the suburban voters who rejected Trump in 2016 and Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018 can be persuaded to come over in House races. The Senate runoff is the day's biggest race, and the final test this cycle (alongside Maine) for the power of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. The Democrats backed MJ Hegar, an Air Force veteran who in 2018 ran an unexpectedly close race for a exurban House seat, as soon as she got into the race. Hegar survived a crowded primary only to get a runoff with state Sen. Royce West and then, as in Alabama, a multi-month delay. 

But neither Hegar nor West looked dominant in that primary, winning 22 percent and 15 percent of the vote. Hegar did best in the Hill Country (around Austin, where her 2018 race was) and around Houston; West won the Dallas area and carried parts of East Texas. Most of the vote was spread between weaker challengers; nearly all of the Rio Grande Valley, a stronghold of Latino Democrats, voted for one of the primary's Latino candidates.

Hegar remains favored and has tripled West in fundraising; the question is whether the 67-year-old state senator has capitalized on the new energy around civil rights and police reform. West passed police reform in Austin and emphasized his experience in debates, comparing it to Hegar's story — belatedly getting into politics and casting a 2016 protest vote in the GOP's presidential primary. West's ads, not too subtly, call him “the true Democrat you can trust” and point to his decades of experience.

“I think this is why people tune out from politics,” said an exasperated Hegar in her final debate with West, after he once again attacked her 2016 vote. “You know that that’s not true and you’re intentionally misleading voters.”

The race has been superficially compared to Kentucky's June primary, in which another black state legislator surged against another female veteran fresh off a 2018 congressional race. Like Kentucky's Charles Booker, West has also locked up most of the support from his colleagues in the legislature. But Republicans view West, with his liberal voting record and soft fundraising, as a weaker general election opponent, and Sen. John Cornyn has run ads portraying West as “too liberal,” a tactic (which has not worked much this year) deployed to help a preferred candidate win his party's primary.

Twelve of Texas's 36 House districts will hold primary runoffs today, though a few (Republican races in the deep blue 20th and 34th districts, a Democratic runoff in the blood-red 3rd District) won't have much bearing on November. In the 13th District, where Republican Rep. Mac Thornberry is retiring, former Thornberry staffer Josh Winegarner is facing former White House physician Ronny L. Jackson. Winegarner won nearly twice as many votes in the primary, but Jackson has the president's endorsement; a loss here would be the fourth 2020 defeat for a Trump-backed Republican in a primary. The 13th contains all or part of 41 counties, with most of the vote coming from Wichita County (Wichita Falls) and Randall and Potter counties (Amarillo and its suburbs).

In the 17th District, which starts in Waco and covers a swath of Central Texas, former Dallas-area congressman Pete Sessions is seeking a comeback after losing in 2018. He won around one-third of the vote in the primary, but ophthalmologist Renee Swann has matched him in campaign spending and won the endorsement of retiring Rep. Bill Flores. Nearly half the vote could come from Brazos County (College Station), where Swann ran poorly in March but where Sessions ran behind his districtwide numbers. Like the 13th, the district is safely Republican in November.

The general election in the 22nd District is destined to be more competitive; located in the western suburbs of Houston, centered on Sugar Land, the district has moved rapidly toward Democrats, and 2018 nominee Sri Preston Kulkarni, a former diplomat, is the their candidate again. But there's a runoff on the Republican side. Most of the spending in the past three months has come from another district-shopper, Kathaleen Wall, who's spent more than $6 million after a similar self-funding campaign couldn't get her over the top in a 2018 primary won by now-Rep. Dan Crenshaw. Fort Bend County Sheriff Troy Nehls has spent less than 10 percent as much as Wall and ran far ahead of her in March, thanks to a landslide in that swing county, which casts most of the vote.

Texas's other key runoffs will decide which Democrats get to run in places the party ran stronger than expected but came up short, two years ago. In the 10th District, currently held by Republican Rep. Michael McCaul, 2018 nominee Mike Siegel is facing physician Pritesh Gandhi, after a third (female) candidate backed by NARAL and Emily's List was knocked out of the runoff. Most of the vote will come from Travis County (Austin), which Siegel carried handily in March; Gandhi has argued that Siegel is more liberal and therefore less electable in a district drawn to elect McCaul. 

In the 24th District, which covers Dallas's exurbs, veteran Kim Olson, who impressed Democrats with a near miss 2018 statewide bid, is in a bitter race with school board member Candace Valenzuela. Olson led in the primary by winning the district's Dallas and Tarrant county sections, where most of the electorate lives; since then Valenzuela has gained more attention and endorsements and gotten plenty of time to attack Olson's rocky tenure on the Dallas school board.

In the 31st District, which Hegar lost two years ago, neither Democrat — physician Christine Mann and Andrew Yang-backed Donna Imam — has gotten the same national attention or donations as the 2018 nominee. Most of the vote will come from Williamson County, north of Austin, which Mann won narrowly in March.

Finally, both parties have a stake in the 23rd District, where the retirement of Rep. Will Hurd has created the only open-seat race in the country won by both a Republican member of Congress and by Hillary Clinton. The runoff is an accidental proxy fight between the president, who's endorsed Navy veteran Tony Gonzales, and Sen. Ted Cruz, who's endorsed Air Force veteran Raul Reyes. The largest district in Texas, it was almost won in a 2018 upset by Democrat Gina Ortiz Jones, who is running again and is sitting on a $2.4 million war chest to throw at the primary winner. The biggest single share of the vote in the 29-county district will come from San Antonio's Bexar County, which Gonzales won over Reyes by a 2-1 margin.

Reading list

“Voters prepare to set key November Senate matchups,” by Paul Kane

How today's races could affect the battle for Mitch McConnell's job.

“Signed, sealed, undelivered: Thousands of mail-In ballots rejected for tardiness,” by Pam Fessler and Elena Moore

Stepped-up absentee voting has led to a crisis of uncounted ballots.

“Trump frustrated with campaign manager Parscale amid falling polls,” by Michael Scherer and Josh Dawsey

The trouble with Death Stars.

“Jeff Sessions won’t say if he’d back Tommy Tuberville for Senate,” by Elaina Plott

The bitterness in Alabama might not end with the vote count today.

“Texas Senate runoff asks whether what worked for Democrats in 2018 still works in 2020,” by Jenna Johnson

How the suburban politics of the last election may clash with the movement politics of this one.

“Maine Republicans need voters to use a system they detest,” by Madelaine Pisani

Could anger at ranked-choice voting backfire on Republicans?

Ad watch

Senate Majority PAC, “Never.” The partisan super PACs in Maine have been busily trashing the reputations of the opposing party's likely nominees. Republicans have gone after Democrat Sara Gideon for her light touch in handling a legislator with #MeToo issues; Democrats now are using a video taken by an activist in January, asking Collins whether she had taken money from “the Sackler family” and catching Collins in a fib: She had gotten a donation from Jonathan Sackler, a member of the pharma family now infamous for its opioid distribution, in 2007.

Susan Collins, “Maine Can't Afford Sara Gideon.” In her first truly competitive race for reelection, Collins is portraying Gideon, who became State House speaker when Democrats took over state government, as a liberal tax-and-spender; her own ads portray Collins as a roll-her-sleeves-up senator trying to help out individual Mainers.

Kathaleen Wall, “China Arrest.” Self-funding her second congressional campaign in Texas, Wall has been quick on the air with every topic that's in the headlines. In this spot, she frames the race as “Kathaleen Wall against communist China,” as pounding music underscores a narrator's dramatic promises: “Our faith is our core, and we will make China pay.”

Pete Sessions, “Is Renee Swann Using Taxpayer Dollars for Her Campaign?” Sessions, who lost his seat in the 2018 wave, made the runoff in a new seat and is trying to fend off a challenger backed by the retiring incumbent. This radio ad argued that by self-funding her campaign, Swann indirectly fleeced taxpayers: “Renee Swann took up to $350,000 in taxpayer funds meant to help small businesses, and then she moved $250,000 into her campaign to pay for political ads.” The transfer wasn't direct, but Sessions has argued that because “money is fungible,” the bailout helped Swann free up cash for her candidacy.

Poll watch

Presidential election in Missouri (SLU/YouGov, 900 likely voters)

Donald Trump: 50%
Joe Biden: 43%

For decades, whoever won Missouri was also winning the presidency. Then came 2008, when John McCain carried the state narrowly, followed by a decade of conservative Democrats bolting the party and voting for Republicans. Biden's seven-point deficit here is the strongest a Democrat has run in Missouri since that first Obama race, though there's not much to justify a Biden investment in the state. He is winning voters with college degrees and moderates, but nobody else. 

That's still good news for local Democrats, who in 2016 lost statewide races they saw as winnable; they ran hundreds of thousands of votes behind Hillary Clinton, as she lost by 19 points, comparable to Ronald Reagan's 1984 landslide here. The party has lost most key elections since 2016, but state Auditor Nicole Galloway has given them a credible candidate for governor.

2024 Watch

You did not misread that. The jockeying and (sometimes baseless) speculation around the next presidential primary is already underway, and it's been like that for months. 

In an interview with the Hill, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie did not rule out a second bid for president, which would come eight years after his last bid faltered in New Hampshire. (Christie is 20 years younger than Democratic nominee Joe Biden, a fellow alumnus of the University of Delaware.)

“The media and others convicted people before they even had a trial, and it materially affected my ability to run for president,” he said, referring to the Bridgegate controversy that dogged his second term in Trenton. “Now that we’ve had that cleared away and it’s no longer a controversy, you know, from my perspective, maybe 2024 is time to try to go after that job again. I think I have a lot to contribute, and I think everybody sees that.”

On Friday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will head to Iowa to speak to the Family Leader, a social conservative group that has hosted years of forums for potential presidential candidates. The event was initially scheduled for late March, when some Republicans were still trying to coax Pompeo into leaving State and running for Senate in Kansas.

Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas got a surge of donations last quarter after the New York Times ran his op-ed urging the use of the military to quell civil unrest, a piece that led to the resignation of the section's editor. Cotton got at least $1 million in small-dollar support, pushing him far ahead of his totals from last quarter; Cotton, in general, has not had to raise much money since his prospective Democratic opponent quit the race and the local party was legally prohibited from replacing him. Last month, Cotton used some of the new resources to run ads against Joe Biden.

Candidate tracker

As this week began, President Trump's eyes were on Alabama and Texas, where he was seeking to punish one candidate for what he viewed as disloyalty and help candidates for staying on his side.

The president's call on behalf of Alabama's Tommy Tuberville was notable mostly for a gaffe, as he repeatedly referred to legendary Alabama coach Nick Saban as “Lou Saban,” a different coach who died 11 years ago. (The flub was minor, but the Trump campaign has hyper-focused on any similar slip-ups by Joe Biden.)

Trump also jumped into tele-town halls for two of his endorsed Texas candidates, Tony Gonzales and Ronny L. Jackson. 

“He's been with us from the beginning,” Trump said of Jackson, his former physician, who in 2018 withdrew his nomination to lead Veterans Affairs after some controversy. “This is the kind of people we need coming to Washington help us. He's loyal, he's brave, he's a leader, and he'll never let the people of Texas down.”

Biden spent the start of the week raising money and rolling out the second of his economic agenda items, a climate plan that moves up the date for clean energy mandates up from what he proposed during the primary. In a Monday fundraiser, he referred briefly to a question that's often asked about him: If he won in 2020, would he seek a second term that would begin in his 80s?

“God willing I win, and even if I serve eight years, I want to make sure we put down such a marker that it’s impossible for the next president to turn it around,” Biden said of his climate plans. The plans, introduced fully at a speech in Wilmington, Del., would devote $2 trillion to the renewable energy industry.

Meet a PAC

What it is: No Dem Left Behind, an LLC, which isn't spending money for candidates.

What it does: Share best practices, and media attention, between Democrats in deep red districts who are not getting much attention from the national party. “When you're campaigning in the middle of a pandemic, you do what you have to do,” said Richard Ojeda, a former West Virginia state senator who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2018 and 2020 and is now NDLB's spokesman. “We advertise online, we say this week Alyssa Milano will be the host for a discussion, and we get people to tune in.” The theory is that by connecting the candidates to each other, and introducing them to more voters, they could break through.

Who's behind it: Hassan Martini, a former PR manager, leads the project, with Ojeda as its public face. “We have learned the Corrupt GOP does not play fair,” the group wrote in a mission statement this year. “They take their marching orders from Moscow Mitch McConnell. This onslaught of attacks has motivated and reinvigorated our movement like nothing else. It tells us they are scared, and they have good reason to be.”

Who it's supporting: Twelve Democrats in districts won comfortably by Republicans in 2018 and carried by the president in 2016. None have achieved the sort of stardom, and subsequent fundraising power, that Ojeda did in his 2018 race, but some have stories that resemble his; in Maryland's rural 1st District, the LLC is helping trans veteran Mia Mason.

What's next: More forums and, with Ojeda's encouragement, more candidates holding live Q&As to pique the interest of voters and reporters. None of the races have attracted attention from Republicans yet, who acted quickly in 2018 to beat rural Democrats. “If it wasn’t for Trump coming into my backyard to call me crazy, I'd have won,” Ojeda said.


… 21 days until primaries in Arizona, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri and Washington
… 23 days until primaries in Tennessee
… 25 days until primaries in Hawaii
… 28 days until primaries in Connecticut, Minnesota, Vermont and Wisconsin
… 34 days until the Democratic National Convention
… 44 days until the Republican National Convention
… 52 days until some absentee ballots start going out
… 112 days until the general election