Today, nine states and the District of Columbia will hold primary elections, most of which were delayed to slow the spread of the coronavirus.1 And although the presidential nomination race is all but over, seven states (and Washington, D.C.) will hold presidential primaries today, while eight states and D.C. will hold primaries for down-ballot contests. So here’s a preview of some of the marquee races that could have implications for key Senate, House and gubernatorial contests in November.
In Iowa, the main events are the Democratic primary for the Senate and the Republican primary for the 4th Congressional District. In the Senate contest, the big question is whether the Democratic establishment will get its preferred pick to take on Republican Sen. Joni Ernst. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and Senate Majority PAC, an outside group allied with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, are backing real estate executive Theresa Greenfield over retired Vice Admiral Mike Franken, attorney Kimberly Graham and businessman Eddie Mauro.
It’s a little surprising that national Democrats have invested so much in Greenfield as at the start of the cycle, she was a little-known candidate who had never held office. Yet Greenfield has a compelling narrative: She grew up on a small rural farm and has dealt with her share of tragedy, having to overcome the death of her husband as a young mother. She’s proved to be a strong fundraiser, too, bringing in more money than Ernst in the most recent fundraising period.
But it’s unclear just how much of an advantage Greenfield has despite her national backing. The Des Moines Register endorsed Franken, citing his military and policymaking experience, and Mauro is self-funding his campaign, so his $1.5 million in campaign spending is not that far behind Greenfield’s $2.3 million. Not to mention, Greenfield has been criticized by opponents for her real estate company’s evictions of small businesses and the outside support her campaign has received. Greenfield’s allies are worried enough about Franken that the campaign arm of Emily’s List — a group that works to elect Democratic women who favor abortion rights — has spent $1 million going after him.
The two recent polls of the race show very different results, too. A mid-May survey conducted by Public Policy Polling found Greenfield at 43 percent, well ahead of Franken (12 percent), Graham and Mauro (4 percent each). The only other survey we’ve seen — a poll from Advantage, Inc. — was leaked and came with no information about its sponsor, but it showed a much tighter — and wide-open — race, with Greenfield at 19 percent, Graham at 16 percent, Franken at 15 percent and Mauro at 8 percent.
Iowa’s 4th Congressional District will be a key race to watch as well as Republican Rep. Steve King might be in real trouble of losing his seat. King’s racist and controversial statements have long made him a pariah to many Republicans, and now Republican state Sen. Randy Feenstra is challenging King, arguing that the incumbent can no longer effectively represent the district after GOP leaders stripped him of his House committee appointments.
Two mid-May surveys suggest a tight race with Feenstra, too. Always treat campaign polls with caution, but Feenstra’s internal polling found him trailing King by just 3 points, 39 percent to 36 percent, while a group backing Feenstra found King losing by 2 points, 41 percent to 39 percent. Still, King may survive this primary challenge because many Iowa conservatives haven’t abandoned him. Some influential Republican activists have ditched him, though, including Iowa social conservative leader Bob Vander Plaats, who ran an ad in support of Feenstra despite his long-standing relationship with King.
But just how competitive the Iowa 4th is in November will depend on whether King wins renomination. Democrat J.D. Scholten, who lost to King by just 3 points in 2018 in this deep red seat — President Trump carried it by 27 points in 2016 — is back for a rematch and should be competitive against King. But if Feenstra defeats King, the GOP could have a better shot at retaining this ostensibly safe Republican seat.
To the west, Montana is shaping up as the most competitive gubernatorial election in 2020, with both parties featuring contested primaries in the race to succeed term-limited Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock. On the Republican side, Rep. Greg Gianforte lost to Bullock in the 2016 gubernatorial race, but he won Montana’s at-large House seat in 2017, and he’s now taking another shot at the governorship, where he appears to have the upper hand against Montana Attorney General Tim Fox and state Sen. Al Olszewski. This is in part thanks to his sizable funding advantage — Gianforte has raised around $2 million while also loaning another $1.5 million to his campaign. By comparison, Fox has raised only $750,000, while Olszewski has brought in $350,000. The coronavirus pandemic may have boosted Gianforte, too, as he’s been able to advertise while Fox and Olszewski have been unable to campaign in person to overcome their monetary shortfall. There’s been no recent public polling, but it looks like Gianforte’s race to lose.
Meanwhile, the Democratic primary between Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney and businesswoman Whitney Williams has been something of an insider-outsider battle. Cooney has a lengthy political resume in state government while Williams is a first-time candidate — though she is the daughter of longtime Democratic Rep. Pat Williams. But the coronavirus crisis may have helped Cooney — who also has Bullock’s endorsement — as it’s given more weight to his argument that he has the know-how to govern on day one. Still, Williams has run about even with Cooney in the money race — both have raised about $800,000 for the primary — and she’s also received significant outside help from Emily’s List, which made a $700,000 ad buy on her behalf. But a dearth of polling in this primary has left us with little else to go on at this point, so it’s hard to know who is favored.
To the south, there are two congressional primaries worth watching in New Mexico. The Democratic-held 2nd District is one of Republicans’ best pickup opportunities this cycle — it voted for Trump by 10 points. Former state Rep. Yvette Herrell, who narrowly lost the seat by 2 points in 2018, is running again in the GOP primary. Herrell is a conservative grassroots favorite, but she faces stiff competition in oil executive Claire Chase. The primary has turned particularly nasty in recent weeks, with Herrell attacking Chase for her “Never Trump” past, including releasing an ad that mocks Chase’s 2015 anti-Trump social media posts. It’s not clear who has the edge here, though. We don’t have any polls of the race, and as of May 13, Chase had narrowly outspent Herrell ($1.1 million to $920,000). That said, Herrell has gotten support from outside groups like the political arm of the House Freedom Caucus and even the Democratic group Patriot Majority, which apparently believes she’ll be easier to beat than Chase in the fall.
Next door in the open 3rd District, seven Democrats are vying for the nod in this safely blue seat, including one whom non-New Mexicans may recognize: Valerie Plame, a former Central Intelligence Agency operative who was famously unmasked in 2003 after Plame’s then-husband criticized the Bush administration’s rationale for invading Iraq. With the help of a slick announcement video that went viral, Plame has raised the most money in the race (more than $2 million), but she has also been attacked for linking to an anti-Semitic article in 2017: One extreme dark-money ad even superimposed swastikas on her eyes and linked her to white supremacists. Plame’s main competition for the nomination appears to be civil-rights attorney Teresa Leger Fernandez, who has raised almost $1.3 million, has been endorsed by Emily’s List and received the most support from delegates at the pre-primary convention. We have just one recent poll of the race — an internal poll released by Emily’s List — which gave Leger Fernandez 33 percent and Plame 24 percent, with no other candidate reaching double digits.
Finally, how the elections unfold today is worth watching as well. The pandemic has forced all 10 jurisdictions voting today to make at least some changes to the way the election is being held. In addition, elections are taking place in many cities that have seen extensive unrest in the wake of George Floyd’s death in police custody, which could affect turnout in unpredictable ways.
Maryland and Montana have done the most to encourage voting by mail, sending every registered voter a ballot. The District of Columbia, Idaho, Iowa, New Mexico, Rhode Island and South Dakota stopped short of mailing everyone a ballot but did mail every voter an application to request one. By contrast, Pennsylvania merely mailed voters a postcard with instructions on how to request an absentee ballot. And Indiana waived the requirement that voters provide an excuse to vote absentee but did not mail anything out at all.
But regardless of the steps each state has taken on the vote-by-mail front, there is likely to be a big spike in the number of mailed ballots, so it will be interesting to see how states are (or aren’t) prepared to handle the increased volume. Already, concerns that many Pennsylvania voters would not receive their absentee ballots in time have prompted Gov. Tom Wolf to extend the deadline for voters in six counties to return their ballots by one week, issues with Maryland’s ballot vendor caused more than 1 million ballots to go out late, and a candidate in Idaho successfully sued to extend the deadline to apply for an absentee ballot after he argued that the state’s ballot-request website got overloaded at the last minute. And voters in several other states are complaining they still haven’t received ballots they requested weeks ago.
Every jurisdiction is also scaling back in-person voting options. New Mexico originally planned to provide 548 polling places, but only 381 are actually open. Rhode Island has consolidated its polling places from 144 in the 2016 primary to 47 this year. The District of Columbia has scaled down from 144 to 20. In addition, D.C. has imposed a 7 p.m. curfew for tonight to stem potential rioting, but voters — who can go to vote centers until 8 p.m. — are supposed to be exempt. Most drastically, Idaho is not opening any in-person voting sites at all — which many voting-rights advocates argue disenfranchises people with disabilities and without mailing addresses.
Some states left the decision of how many polling places to open up to local governments, which could also produce wide disparities in voting access in different corners of the state. For example, Marion County, Indiana — home of Indianapolis and 43 percent of the state’s non-Hispanic black population — will have just 22 polling places, down from more than 250. But suburban Hamilton County, which has the highest per-capita median income in the state, is expected to open all 125 of its usual polling places. In Pennsylvania, the majority-minority City of Philadelphia is consolidating 831 polling places into 190, while affluent suburban Bucks County was planning not to close any. For primary races that cross county and city lines, this threatens to affect the outcome by giving certain localities an outsized proportion of the total votes cast.
We’ll be watching both how today’s key races turn out and whether the elections go off without a hitch. Although we won’t be live-blogging tonight, check back for a recap article soon — just don’t expect it right away, as the high volume of mail ballots likely means results won’t be final for some time.