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Can Progressive Candidates In Minnesota, Vermont And Wisconsin Win Their Primaries?

The busy August primary season continues apace today with elections in Connecticut, Minnesota, Vermont and Wisconsin. Yesterday, my colleague Nathaniel Rakich dug into the Republican primaries of note, so now we’re going to take a look at four primaries of note on the Democratic side. Three of these races involve progressive Democrats who are on course to defeat their challengers — two in heavily Democratic congressional districts in Vermont and Minnesota and one in Wisconsin’s highly competitive Senate race. (The other Democratic primary involves a red-leaning House seat in Wisconsin that Democrats will have a challenging time defending this November.)

So without further ado, here are those contests in order of poll-closing times.

Vermont is the only state that has yet to elect a woman to Congress, but State Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint — who is currently leading Lt. Gov. Molly Gray in polls — could change that, should she win the deep-blue state’s at-large House seat in November.

Kristopher Radder / The Brattleboro Reformer / AP, File


Race to watch: At-Large Congressional District

Polls close: 7 p.m. Eastern

It’s been 16 years since Vermont had an open-seat race for Congress, but a series of falling dominoes has precipitated a high-profile Democratic primary in the state’s at-large district. Longtime Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy announced his retirement in November, prompting Democratic Rep. Peter Welch to run for his seat, leaving Vermont’s one House district open.

Two major Democratic contenders have emerged in this race: state Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint and Lt. Gov. Molly Gray. And thanks to the state’s solidly blue lean, the primary victor will almost certainly win in November, so Vermont appears set to send its first woman to Congress, making it the 50th and final state to do so.

The race between Balint and Gray isn’t as close as it once was, however, as the more progressive Balint has held sizable leads in the race’s two most recent surveys. In late July, the liberal pollster Data for Progress found Balint leading 59 percent to 27 percent, and around the same time, a survey from the University of New Hampshire/WCAX found Balint up 63 percent to 21 percent. (Both surveys were of likely Democratic primary voters.) Moreover, while the two candidates were similarly well-known in the UNH poll, Balint was much more well-liked: Seventy-three percent held a favorable view of Balint, compared with just 42 percent for Gray.

Balint has campaigned on her accomplishments in the state legislature and has also racked up financial support and endorsements. She’s highlighted her status as the first woman to ever lead the state Senate and her efforts to pass gun violence prevention measures. Balint has also focused on the importance of fighting efforts to roll back voting rights, reproductive rights and same-sex marriage, and noted the effect this would have on her life, as she is a lesbian who is married with two children. On the money front, Balint had raised $1.1 million as of July 20, and she’s also benefited from $1.3 million in outside support, mostly from the LGBTQ Victory Fund. Endorsements from progressive leaders, most notably Vermont’s own Sen. Bernie Sanders, have also burnished her standing in the race.

Unlike Balint, Gray does have a statewide win on her resume, winning the lieutenant governor election in 2020 after upsetting a more seasoned state legislator in the Democratic primary. But while she’s largely matched Balint in fundraising, raising a little over $1 million, it hasn’t been enough to keep the race close. Gray has tried to make hay out of Balint’s outside support, criticizing “dark money” in the race, but it seems Balint’s lengthy track record and progressive record have put her in pole position over Gray.

Two-term Rep. Ilhan Omar, a progressive, is facing a primary challenge from the right for the second consecutive cycle.

Win McNamee / Getty Images


Race to watch: 5th Congressional District

Polls close: 9 p.m. Eastern

Minnesota’s one notable Democratic primary comes in a deep-blue seat, the Minneapolis-based 5th District, where progressive Rep. Ilhan Omar faces a challenge from her right by former Minneapolis City Council member Don Samuels. Omar, who is part of “The Squad,” a group of progressive members of Congress who are mostly women of color, has attracted intraparty criticism over her past statements about Israel, and she also joined a handful of other progressives in breaking with her party to oppose the bipartisan infrastructure package passed in 2021.

Samuels has attempted to capitalize on these clashes by running on the message that “any politician can make a point” but that he’ll “make a difference.” He’s also made policing a major part of his campaign, as he was a prominent opponent of Question 2, a 2021 city ballot initiative that would have replaced the Minneapolis Police Department with a Department of Public Safety. In contrast, Omar supported the measure, which failed at the ballot box, 44 percent to 56 percent. Samuels has raised a solid amount for a primary challenger — almost $1.1 million — and won the endorsement from Minneapolis’s big newspaper, the Star Tribune.

But Omar has proven herself capable of holding off a well-funded challenger. In 2020, she defeated fellow Democrat Antone Melton-Meaux, 58 percent to 39 percent, even though Melton-Meaux also ran to her right and outraised her in the primary. This time around, though, Omar has outraised her challenger, having brought in $2.4 million, and she’s already spent $2.1 million on the campaign, evidence that she’s not taking any chances against Samuels. We don’t have any independent polling, but Omar did release a survey in June from Change Research that showed her ahead of Samuels, 60 percent to 21 percent. Considering her electoral track record, incumbency and financial edge, Omar remains a clear favorite.

Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes has raised over $7 million in his campaign for U.S. Senate.

Sara Stathas / The Washington Post


Races to watch: U.S. Senate, 3rd Congressional District

Polls close: 9 p.m. Eastern

A couple weeks ago, the Democratic primary for Senate in Wisconsin was set to be one of the biggest races on the ballot today. But instead, progressive Democratic Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes is his party’s presumptive nominee after all three of his leading opponents dropped out and endorsed him. Barnes’s all-but-certain victory puts him on a collision course with Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, who has held this seat for two terms but has attracted controversy with his claims and actions regarding the 2020 presidential election, including reports that he tried to push a fake slate of Wisconsin electors in an effort to prevent the certification of President Biden’s election.

Looking ahead to November, Barnes has put some distance between himself and some of his past actions, such as holding a shirt that said “Abolish ICE,” likely in anticipation that Republicans will portray him as too left-wing for Wisconsin. Still, Johnson is arguably more vulnerable than he should be as an incumbent in a state that leans slightly toward his party and in a midterm where the opposition party is in the White House — FiveThirtyEight’s 2022 midterm election forecast currently gives him just a 2 in 3 shot of defeating Barnes. Early polling has been scarce, but a Marquette University Law School poll found the two candidates running neck and neck in a hypothetical matchup in June.

With the anticlimactic Senate race, the 3rd District in western Wisconsin is now the Democrats’ most interesting congressional primary in the Badger State. Democratic Rep. Ron Kind is retiring after 13 terms in the House. His departure and the rightward drift of the region have imperiled Democrats’ chances of holding the seat, which is 9 points more Republican than the country as a whole, according to FiveThirtyEight’s partisan lean.1 Despite these challenges, three notable Democrats are vying to be their party’s choice to defend the seat this fall: state Sen. Brad Pfaff, former CIA officer Deb McGrath and businesswoman Rebecca Cooke.

Although we have no polling to go on, Pfaff may be the favorite heading into the primary. After all, he’s been able to play up his endorsement from Kind (Pfaff was formerly Kind’s chief of staff). He also has a proven electoral track record as a state legislator and he’s raised $722,000. But his two opponents can’t be written off, as McGrath has raised $639,000 and Cooke has raised $432,000. McGrath has also grabbed attention with an ad in which she goes skydiving, playing up her background as a former Army parachutist while arguing “sometimes it takes a mom to get things done.” Cooke, meanwhile, has highlighted her background growing up on a farm while touting her support from organized labor groups, including the Service Employees International Union Wisconsin State Council.

The eventual Democratic nominee will be in for a tough fight, however, considering the partisan lean of the district. Republicans have coalesced around retired Navy SEAL Derrick Van Orden, who lost to Kind by less than 3 points in 2020. Van Orden has already raised $4.5 million, giving him a huge resource advantage ahead of the November election.

As we watch to see how these races will play out tonight, you should come join us! Our live blog of the results will start at 7 p.m. Eastern, so please come hang out as we process all the results and more.


  1. Partisan lean is the average margin difference between how a state or district votes and how the country votes overall. This version of partisan lean, meant to be used for congressional and gubernatorial elections, is calculated as 50 percent the state or district’s lean relative to the nation in the most recent presidential election, 25 percent its relative lean in the second-most-recent presidential election and 25 percent a custom state-legislative lean.

Geoffrey Skelley is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.


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