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Four Key Questions Today’s Primaries Will Help Answer

July will be an election desert, so let’s enjoy the primaries while they last, shall we? This Tuesday, five states — Colorado, Maryland, New York, Oklahoma and Utah — are holding primary elections,1 while two more (Mississippi and South Carolina) are holding runoffs to decide primaries held earlier this month. Here are the four big questions we’re hoping those primaries answer (don’t forget to tune into our live blog on Tuesday night for full coverage of everything else on the ballot as well):

1. Does a Trump endorsement pack any punch against a Trump-like candidate?

On a few occasions this election cycle, President Trump has opposed the most Trump-like candidate in GOP primaries in the name of advancing a Republican candidate who seems better-equipped to win the general election. It happened in Alabama when Trump endorsed Luther Strange against Roy Moore, and it happened in West Virginia when he anti-endorsed Don Blankenship. So far, Trump’s record in these bouts has been mixed (Strange lost, but so did Blankenship). Two primaries this week will be good tests of how much the president’s endorsement really matters — or whether anti-establishment Republicans see through it.

In New York’s 11th Congressional District, which is based on Staten Island, Trump is backing the current member of Congress, Republican Dan Donovan. He won a 2015 special election after the previous occupant of the seat, Republican Michael Grimm, pleaded guilty to tax evasion and resigned. Now, after seven months in federal prison, Grimm is gunning for his old job, and he cuts a much more Trumpian figure than Donovan. Grimm, like Trump, has threatened the press and claimed to be the victim of a “witch hunt.” Also, former Trump staffers, such as Steve Bannon and Anthony Scaramucci, have endorsed him.

At first glance, Grimm looks like a long shot: Donovan has far more campaign cash, and the resources of the national party are behind him. But on Staten Island, that may not be an asset. Physically and demographically separate from the rest of New York City, the “forgotten borough” has developed a uniquely resentful, populist conservative political identity that made it fertile ground for Trump. He won the 11th District by 10 percentage points four years after Barack Obama carried it by 4. And Grimm still has plenty of loyal fans who fondly recall his attentiveness to constituents, especially after Superstorm Sandy hit the region in 2012. A Siena College poll conducted between May 29 and June 3 found Grimm leading Donovan 47 percent to 37 percent, but Trump may have rendered that datapoint obsolete by tweeting his endorsement of Donovan while the poll was still in the field. A more recent poll, taken June 20-21, gave Donovan a 7-point lead, but — internal poll siren! — the pollster is owned by a consulting firm that is working for Donovan.

The 11th District is 9 percentage points more Republican-leaning than the country at large,2 but the nastiness of the primary could provide a general-election opening for well-funded Army veteran Max Rose, the likely Democratic nominee. A win by Grimm, with his criminal past and scorched-earth campaigning, could drive many Donovan supporters into the arms of the Democrats in November.3 Grimm is also campaigning as a write-in candidate in the New York Conservative Party primary (also this Tuesday); if he wins their nomination, he’ll have a ballot spot in November and the option to continue on with his campaign. A three-way race in November could split the conservative vote and hand Democrats the seat.

The stakes aren’t as high in the Republican runoff for South Carolina governor (the Palmetto State has a safely red R+16 partisan lean), but Trump’s power to persuade is arguably even more on the line. On Monday, the night before the election, Trump popped down to Columbia to hold a rally for Gov. Henry McMaster, a longtime Trump supporter. However, McMaster’s opponent, John Warren, is running as a swamp-draining outsider at a time when an illegal lobbying and influence-peddling investigation focused on a prominent South Carolina political consultant has touched McMaster’s inner circle. Warren has also won the endorsements of the third- and fourth-place finishers from the first round of voting. Unlike in New York, however, the Trump-like businessman appears to be the underdog: In a Trafalgar Group survey conducted this month, McMaster led Warren 60 percent to 31 percent.

2. Can progressive Democrats notch another win against the national party?

Despite a high-profile brouhaha in Texas and one notable exception, the national Democratic establishment has generally done quite well in primaries so far this year. Three races on Tuesday will put that record to the test.

Colorado’s 6th Congressional District (a D+5 partisan lean) and its Republican incumbent, Mike Coffman, have for years been a target of Democrats, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee decided early on that former Army Ranger and Bronze Star winner Jason Crow was its man. That apparently didn’t sit well with former Energy Department adviser Levi Tillemann, who is running against Crow. Tillemann proved his anti-establishment bona fides by secretly recording a conversation he had with House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer in which Hoyer urged him to drop out. Although Crow is a mainstream liberal on the issues, he has not taken up the mantle of either single-payer health care or pushing for Trump’s impeachment, both of which Tillemann supports. Crow has dominated the money race with $1.6 million raised, but Tillemann has kept his name in the spotlight with stunts like getting pepper-sprayed in a campaign ad.

Meanwhile, former Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner left the DCCC holding the bag in January when she decided not to run for Congress in New York’s 24th District (D+4). Local Democratic committees consolidated around Syracuse University professor Dana Balter as their candidate to take on Republican U.S. Rep. John Katko, but national Democrats were unsatisfied. Lo and behold, in April, a new candidate, Juanita Perez Williams, unexpectedly jumped into the race, prompting the local parties to denounce the DCCC’s “D.C. meddling.” But Perez Williams may not be the improvement on Balter that national Democrats had hoped. Perez Williams, who somewhat surprisingly lost the 2017 race for Syracuse mayor, failed to top even Balter’s paltry fundraising totals in the most recent period, and she has been attacked for participating in an anti-abortion march two years ago and writing pro-life Facebook posts in 2016.4 Balter, meanwhile, is favored by the progressive wing of the party.

Finally, in the Democratic primary for Maryland governor, Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker has the support of a litany of big names in Maryland Democratic politics but hasn’t raised a ton of money and isn’t the most engaging campaigner. Meanwhile, former NAACP President Ben Jealous’s support for free college tuition, single-payer health care and legalized marijuana in Maryland (all unlike Baker) has earned him the endorsement of Bernie Sanders and nearly $1 million in air and ground support from progressive outside groups. Even though Maryland is heavily blue (D+24), polling suggests that Baker and Jealous would be equivalent underdogs to popular Republican Gov. Larry Hogan. Hogan enjoys a 57 percent approval rating … among registered Democrats.

Going into Tuesday night, our best guess is that two of the three establishment-flavored candidates will prevail. In Colorado, Crow is seen as a heavy favorite, and in New York, a Siena College poll taken earlier this month gave Perez Williams a 13-point lead over Balter. The progressive wing’s best shot at a win is probably in Maryland, where the two most recent polls of the primary have Jealous either tied with Baker or slightly ahead.

3. Can the Year of the Woman overcome even a multimillion-dollar juggernaut?

Women have been doing extraordinarily well in Democratic primaries in 2018, which hasn’t always been the case in the past. By contrast, wealthy businessmen spending millions of their own dollars to help them win elected office crop up almost every election cycle. What happens when these two recipes for success collide? Three races on Tuesday will give us our answer.

Even before the primary, 2018 has already broken the record for the most expensive gubernatorial election in Colorado (D+2) history. Emily’s List, a pro-choice women’s group that has helped many of the female candidates who’ve won 2018 primaries, has endorsed former state Treasurer Cary Kennedy in the Democratic primary. Kennedy’s campaign and the super PACs that are loyal to her have combined to raise nearly $4 million. However, that’s chump change compared to U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, the second-wealthiest member of Congress, who has poured $11.3 million of his own money into his campaign. And a super PAC supporting the second man in the race, former state Sen. Mike Johnston, has raised $5.7 million, including $2 million from former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The second woman in the race, Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne, is trailing so badly in fundraising that she has had to resort to attention-grabbing ads like one in which she gets a tattoo of her campaign slogan. According to a Strategies 360 poll conducted from May 23 to June 6, Polis led the primary with 34 percent, followed by Kennedy with 23 percent, Johnston with 12 percent and Lynne with 2 percent.

Likewise, the Democratic primary in New York’s 1st Congressional District may come down to wealthy real-estate investor Perry Gershon and former Suffolk County Legislator Kate Browning. Of the $2.1 million Gershon’s campaign has raised so far this cycle, $1.3 million was loaned or donated by the candidate himself; Browning has pulled in $494,000 total. Both argue they would be strong candidates in November against Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin in this R+12 seat: Gershon with his access to cash, Browning with a blue-collar appeal5 that she says helped her win her conservative legislative district by wide margins six times.

And the Democratic primary for Maryland’s 6th Congressional District (D+12) has been fought not over issues, but identity. David Trone, the owner of the Total Wine & More liquor store chain, has contributed more than $10 million to his own campaign, more than any U.S. House candidate in history save one — himself, two years ago. Trone argues that Congress needs more “disrupters” like him who have an easier time ignoring the desires of big-time donors like PACs and lobbyists, but state Delegate Aruna Miller thinks diversity is the more important factor in the race. Miller, who didn’t speak English when she immigrated from India at age 7, would become the only woman in Maryland’s congressional delegation. She has the support of Emily’s List and, at $1.4 million, enough fundraising to lead the money race in most any other district.

4. Will incumbent Democrats get a scare?

Despite early signs that Democrats might get their own version of the tea party, no Democratic members of Congress have lost primaries yet this cycle. That probably won’t change in one of these races, but a trio of long-serving Democratic members of Congress are facing genuine challenges. In Colorado’s 1st District (D+42), vocal progressive Saira Rao wants to become the first woman of color elected to Congress from Colorado. Rao’s fundraising levels have been competitive with those of incumbent Rep. Diana DeGette.

Likewise, progressive activist Suraj Patel has pulled in more than $500,000 in each of the last two quarters in New York’s 12th District (D+64), besting incumbent Rep. Carolyn Maloney. Maloney has courted controversy over the years, including by making comments in 2012 wondering if vaccines cause autism and by dismissing Patel’s donor list as containing “a huge amount of the name Patel.” Maloney has pilloried Patel for being a transplant from Indiana and for being linked to reported labor-law violations through his family business; the sharp attacks may imply that the race is closer than people assume.

And in New York’s 14th District (D+56), former Sanders campaign organizer Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has an uphill climb against moderate Rep. Joe Crowley, the head of the Queens Democratic Party, No. 4 Democrat in the U.S. House and potential future candidate for speaker. Ocasio-Cortez is 28 years old, of Puerto Rican descent and an avid progressive; Crowley is 56, of Irish descent and has raised 10 times as much as his opponent.

Maryland’s U.S. Senate (D+24) race might even have turned this trio into a quartet if things had unfolded a little differently. Incumbent Ben Cardin is as safe as safe can be, but all eyes will be on how many votes transgender activist and convicted leaker of classified material Chelsea Manning garners in her Democratic primary challenge. By any normal measure (e.g., raising $81,000 for a statewide campaign), she is not running a serious race.

Footnotes

  1. In New York, only federal races will be on the ballot; the state’s primary for state and local races is in September because the legislature can’t agree on consolidating the two dates.

  2. According to FiveThirtyEight’s partisan lean metric, or the average difference between how a state or district voted in the past two presidential elections and how the country voted overall, with 2016 results weighted 75 percent and 2012 results weighted 25 percent.

  3. The Siena poll found that 14 percent of Donovan’s voters would defect to the Democrats if Donovan lost the primary, while almost no Grimm voters would do so if he were to lose.

  4. Here in 2018, Perez Williams has maintained that she would be an unwavering vote in favor of abortion rights, saying that her personal opinion on abortion is irrelevant.

  5. She claims to have been Zeldin’s school bus driver when he was in elementary school.

Nathaniel Rakich is FiveThirtyEight’s elections analyst.

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