What to Watch for as Primaries Kick Off in Texas

What to Watch for as Primaries Kick Off in Texas
AP Photo/Eric Gay
What to Watch for as Primaries Kick Off in Texas
AP Photo/Eric Gay
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Primary season officially begins Tuesday as the Lone Star State kicks off six months of intra-party battles for both Republicans and Democrats. The outcomes will set the terms for the first midterm elections of the Trump administration.

Both parties face multiple contentious primaries replete with pitfalls that could cause headaches for the general election. For Democrats, the flood of House candidates has led to crowded fields in many races. This dynamic has already caused friction between progressive groups and the party’s campaign committee, discord that is likely to continue to percolate in the weeks and months to come. Republicans, meanwhile, have avoided a major party civil war, but still have several contentious Senate primary challenges that could imperil seats Democrats are targeting. Given that the GOP has only a single-seat majority, there is little room for error.  

There are, however, bright spots for both parties: None of the Democratic senators running in states President Trump won in 2016 is facing a serious primary challenge from the left, while no Republican House incumbents in swing districts are facing intra-party threats.

Though House primaries kick off Tuesday and will run through the summer, Senate primaries will begin in earnest in May. Democrats are riding a wave of anti-Trump enthusiasm, and hope the primaries will help toughen their candidates for fall face-offs. Here are several key races to watch as the 2018 primaries commence.

Democratic infighting

Democrats’ House campaign committee waded into a competitive primary in a targeted district in Houston last month, dropping opposition research intended to damage the candidacy of journalist Laura Moser. Progressive groups reacted with fury, backed Moser and accused the DCCC of tipping the scales. Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez said in a C-SPAN interview Sunday that he doesn’t think the party should be anointing candidates.

The DCCC’s move may have potentially backfired: None of Moser’s opponents jumped on the information and a Republican super PAC, eager to highlight Democratic divisions, released a poll last week showing Moser surging in the race ahead of Tuesday’s primary. Moser herself told RCP in an interview last week that few voters knew about the DCCC attacks, but those who did were angry about it.

If Moser finishes in the top two on Tuesday – there are four credible candidates in the race and no one is likely to break 50 percent – the divisions would likely continue until a May runoff. If Moser is unsuccessful, the recriminations from progressive groups aren’t likely to die away quickly.

There are other races that will expose divisions within the party: In Illinois in two weeks, Rep. Dan Lipinski, a pro-life Democrat who voted against Obamacare, is facing a spirited primary challenge from Marie Newman, who’s earned the backing of multiple national organizations and several Democratic members of Congress from the state. If Lipinski loses, there could be frustration among moderate members that the party didn’t do enough to back an incumbent; if Lipinski wins, it could dampen spirits of progressive groups hoping to take out one of the most conservative Democrats in the House.

And in California, Democrats are facing a specific threat: crowded primaries could take prominent pickup opportunities -- in districts where GOP incumbents retired -- off the board. California has a jungle primary, meaning the top two vote-getters advance to the general election regardless of party. If Democrats split the vote in two Orange County districts with multiple credible, well-funded candidates, they could get left off the ballot in November. Party officials have made clear they plan to intervene to prevent this scenario, but it could lead to a protracted and bloody feud ahead of the June primary.

Republican Challenges

Republican senators are in much better shape than last summer, when Steve Bannon, the former chief strategist for Trump, was threatening to back a primary challenge to every Republican incumbent on the ballot except Ted Cruz. But the party still faces several sticky races. In Nevada, Sen. Dean Heller is facing Danny Tarkanian, a perennial candidate with several losses to his name. Heller’s prospects in the primary are looking up – Vice President Mike Pence is heading to Nevada next month to fundraise for the incumbent – but a long-shot upset by Tarkanian would make this a top pickup opportunity for Democrats. And Democrats hope that even if Heller wins his primary, he will do so by aligning closely with the president, whose 2016 loss in Nevada could hurt him in November.

The party’s problem is bigger in Arizona, where there is a three-way primary matchup that features two candidates Republican officials in Washington believe would likely lose a general election: former Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was pardoned by Trump last year, and former state Sen. Kelli Ward, who lost a primary challenge against Sen. John McCain in 2016. They are facing Rep. Martha McSally, a former fighter pilot who is considered a rising star in the party. But as in Nevada, there is concern that if Ward or the 85-year-old Arpaio – who some Republicans hope won’t campaign to the end – wins the primary, the race will fall off the map. Democrats, meanwhile, hope that the primary will force McSally to drive to the right, and toward Trump, which Democrats believe could hurt her in a matchup against Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, the likely Democratic nominee. The Arizona primary is in late August, meaning if it becomes a bloody intra-party battle, it will be a long one.

With Mississippi state Sen. Chris McDaniel set to challenge the GOP Senate incumbent, Roger Wicker, Republicans were facing a repeat of 2014 when McDaniel narrowly lost to Sen. Thad Cochran. But Cochran, who has been struggling with health concerns in recent months, announced his retirement from Monday, setting up a special election this November. If McDaniel runs for that seat, it will likely set up a bloody primary against whomever gets appointed by the governor to temporarily fill Cochran’s seat. If McDaniel remains in the race against Wicker, it’s already set to be the blockbuster primary challenge of the year.

Will GOP Focus on the Economy, or Culture Wars?

Republican strategists and pollsters have urged their candidates to focus entirely on the economy and the benefits from last year’s tax cuts, believing a strong economy is their best bet to defy the trend of a president’s party losing seats in the midterms. But there are some signs that, at least when it comes to winning over the primary electorate, the focus may be more on touchstone cultural issues.

Rep. Todd Rokita, one of three candidates running in the primary to challenge Indiana Sen. Joe Donnelly, released his first TV ad last week: It featured Colin Kaepernick kneeling, attacked Democratic politicians, and focused on guns, building a wall on the Mexican border and making English the national language. It’s only a single ad, but if others follow suit, this could rev up the base primary electorate but turn off critical moderate and independent voters in the general election.

GOP Self-Funders

Three Senate races, all with May primaries, feature wealthy self-funders with the possibility to shake up the races. In Indiana, businessman Mike Braun is facing off against Rokita and Rep. Luke Messer, and has been running ads for months introducing himself to voters. Braun is considered a credible candidate, but he is far less tested than either of the House members, which could be an advantage for Donnelly in the fall.

In Ohio, Rep. Jim Renacci joined the race late following the exit of Josh Mandel, the state treasurer and frontrunner. Renacci faces businessman Mike Gibbons, who has loaned himself $770,000 already and pledged to loan as much as $5 million to win the primary. Renacci has the support of Trump and the GOP establishment – and is also wealthy enough to self-fund – but with enough investment, Gibbons could make the primary a challenge.

And in West Virginia, Don Blankenship, the former head of a mining company who went to prison following an accident that killed more than two dozen workers in 2010, is running against state Attorney General Patrick Morrissey and Rep. Evan Jenkins. Both Jenkins and Morrissey are seen as credible candidates against Democrat Joe Manchin, but Blankenship has lent himself $400,000 already, and has been running TV ads for weeks. Republicans are confident in their path to victory against Manchin, but a long-shot Blankenship victory in the primary could derail that confidence.

Will Democrats Message Against Trump?

Democrats have argued for over a year about their message to voters, believing that opposition to Trump won’t be enough to drive turnout and convince crossover Republican voters to win back either chamber of Congress in November. But early advertising in the primaries suggests that opposition to the president will still be a major part of the formula.

While many of the early ads in Texas and Illinois have been conventional biography ads, Trump has also figured prominently in their messaging. “It won’t be easy to take our country back from Donald Trump, but I approve this message because I’ll fight every day until we do,” Alex Triantaphyllis, one of the candidates in the Houston district, said in his first advertisement.

“Lizzie’s entire life has been about standing up to bullies like Donald Trump,” a supporter says in an ad from another candidate in the race, Lizzie Pannill Fletcher.

Ed Meier, one candidate in a race to face Rep. Pete Sessions in Dallas, featured his father, Donald, in his ad. “When it comes to health care, I’ll listen to Donald Meier, not Donald Trump.”

In a competitive Texas primary to face Rep. Will Hurd, who represents a perennial swing district that includes 800 miles of U.S.-Mexico border, attorney Jay Hulings flashed this message across the screen: “Stop Trump. Vote Jay Hulings.” In another, he stands at the border and says: “I approve this message because I’m running for Congress to stop Donald Trump from destroying the American dream.”

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at jarkin@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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