Four Southern states are holding primaries or runoffs today, with Democrats picking nominees in a half-dozen competitive House races and Republicans working to hold off surprises in places they’ve come to dominate.
While the Democrats’ race for governor of Georgia has earned the most attention, congressional contests in Arkansas, Kentucky and Texas may reveal more about the shape of the party in this year's midterm elections.
Democrats, who have not controlled a federal office in the state since 2014, are looking for a comeback in the 2nd Congressional District, which covers Little Rock and its suburbs. Republican Rep. French Hill, who has no primary challenger, is already on the air with TV ads; so is Clarke Tucker, a state representative who is running on his story of beating cancer and his record of expanding Medicaid in the state.
“I poured my sweat into making that happen in the legislature, and [ACA repeal] would have gutted that,” Tucker said in an interview. “I’m a 36-year-old with a preexisting condition. This is personal for me.”
To avoid a runoff, Tucker needs to secure more than 50 percent of the vote against three challengers, all of whom are running to his left. Paul Spencer, who entered the race months before Tucker, has raised the most money of any of Tucker’s rivals.
Polling has put Tucker in the lead, although short of 50 percent. Democrats are not contesting the races for treasurer or auditor and are trailing in the races for other statewide offices, making a potential Hill-Tucker race the only competitive race in the state. Asked if he would bring Hillary or Bill Clinton in to help, Tucker said he had not yet asked and that it was “not something we spend a lot of time thinking about.”
President Trump on Monday endorsed Gov. Asa Hutchinson in his reelection attempt; he’s facing a primary challenge from the right from Jan Morgan.
Both parties are girding for July 24 runoffs in several key races, potentially draining resources while the other party stockpiles money for the fall.
In the race for governor, Democrats now expect Stacey Abrams, a former legislator and floor leader, to best former legislator Stacey Evans. Polling has found a consistent lead for Abrams, who would be the first black female governor of any state.
Republicans have a more crowded and ideologically fraught contest, with seven candidates — all male — slugging it out for a runoff slot. In the final weeks, the contest has turned on immigration, despite little difference in the candidates’ stances. Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle has run ads on his passage of a “sanctuary city” ban nine years ago, while Secretary of State Brian Kemp and state legislator Michael Williams have talked about personally rounding up “criminal illegals” — Kemp using his pickup truck, Williams with a special “deportation bus.”
Democrats are watching two more primaries in the suburbs of Atlanta, including a do-over attempt in the 6th Congressional District, where Jon Ossoff’s 2017 campaign broke spending records but fell short. Four Democrats are now competing to take on Rep. Karen Handel (R), including gun-control activist Lucy McBath, whose son was fatally shot, and former TV anchor Bobby Kaple.
A similar race is underway in the 7th Congressional District, where six Democrats are competing to give Republican Rep. Rob Woodall his first competitive race since the district was drawn. David Kim, a learning center founder and first-time candidate, has raised more money than Woodall, who has been spending to hold off a Republican primary challenger. Democrats expect primaries in both districts to lead to runoffs.
The Lexington-based 6th Congressional District encapsulates the Democrats’ favorite 2018 dilemma: Places where the party had given up on competing now have crowded primaries. No Democrat has held the seat since 2012, but Marine Corps veteran Amy McGrath is now deadlocked with longtime Lexington Mayor Jim Gray.
The Democratic primary took a contentious turn in the closing days of the race when Gray launched an attack ad that argued McGrath should have lived in the district longer before running for Congress. The former fighter pilot grew up in Kentucky and lived around the world during her military career.
“This is what people hate about politics. This is what drives people away,” McGrath said in a telephone interview in between a busy final day of retail stops. McGrath said a win for her would be a victory for all political newcomers.
“We’re not just going to sit by on the sidelines and watch and see what happens,” McGrath said.
Gray, who unsuccessfully challenged Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in 2016, argued that his experience would be a strength. “All you have to do is look at what’s going on in Washington today to see that experience matters,” he said in an interview, adding that he ran the attack ad because “some people were unfamiliar with her history.”
McGrath has been critical of Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee officials for talking to Gray about running even after she entered the race. “I’m still frustrated and I’m still upset about the start of this,” she said.
The DCCC had taken a lighter touch in the final months, she added, and Democratic strategists believe that either McGrath or Gray would put the seat in play. And Monday, Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), a DCCC recruiter, tweeted that he had
“made a max out donation” to McGrath after seeing Gray’s “dishonorable negative ad.”
A primary for governor will play out across the state, but the most bitter Democratic primary of the year so far will come to an end Tuesday, when attorney Lizzie Fletcher and activist Laura Moser face off for the nomination in Texas’s 7th Congressional District — one of 23 that Hillary Clinton won in 2016 while a Republican was sent back to Congress.
Three months ago, the DCCC’s startling decision to publish opposition research on Moser made the race the flashpoint in a fight between the party’s activists and its establishment.
Ten weeks of campaigning cooled things down — and slowed Moser’s national fundraising. Fletcher has four times as much cash on hand after a primary where she presented herself as a center-left pragmatist and cast doubt on Moser’s theory that liberal voter energy could power her to an upset.
“Hillary Clinton is the last Democrat anyone can remember winning this district,” said Fletcher at a candidate forum this month. “We need to look at that model.”
Republicans, who cheered when Moser made the runoff, have largely stayed off the field, and turnout has slowed down. In Harris County, which contains the 7th and several other districts, more than 86,000 early or absentee votes were cast ahead of the March 6 primary; just 34,000 were cast ahead of the runoff. Republican turnout has seen roughly the same swoon, despite two House runoffs in the county, in the safely blue 29th District and deep-red 2nd District.
In other parts of Texas, Democrats will pick their nominees in swing seats and districts that remain strongly Republican but saw a 2016 move away from Trump. In the 23rd District, which runs along the Mexican border, most of the party is backing Iraq War and Obama administration veteran Gina Ortiz Jones over Bernie Sanders campaign activist Rick Trevino to face Republican Rep. Will Hurd. In the Dallas-area 32nd District, former Obama administration official and NFL player Colin Allred is favored over another Obama vet, Lillian Salerno, to run against Rep. Pete Sessions.
Things are dicier in the 21st and 31st districts, both of which Trump won by more than 10 points. In the 31st, Air Force veteran and author M.J. Hegar is in a tight battle with physician Christine Mann; national Democrats prefer Hegar.
And in the 21st, veteran and first-time candidate Joseph Kopser had impressed national Democrats, raising more than $1.1 million. But he was damaged in four-way primary where rival candidates attacked his past as a Republican and his association with a conservative think tank. Democrats believe that a defeat for Kopser by teacher Mary Wilson would push a race for an open seat off their electoral map. In an interview, Kopser said he was working to prevent that.
“I’ve been watching this national narrative, with people asking: Are Democrats going super liberal or super establishment? Trust me, those labels don’t line up with what’s happening here,” Kopser said.
The Democratic gubernatorial primary pits Lupe Valdez, the former sheriff of Dallas County, against Andrew White, the son of one of the state’s last Democratic governors. Valdez topped White by 16 points in the first round of the primary, and Gov. Greg Abbott (R-Tex.), who leads in the polls, has already run web ads attacking her — leading with her criticism of the state’s “sanctuary city” ban. He has run no ads attacking White, a Houston businessman making his first bid for office.