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Primary Briefing: Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky And Texas

What do Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky and Texas have in common? Well, depending on whom you ask, they’re all Southern states. But more to the point: They’re the four states up to bat this week in the protracted ballgame that is primary election season. (For reference, we’re barely in the third inning.)

These are all fairly red states, but nevertheless there are plenty of opportunities for Democrats to pick up seats (mostly in the House), and the party has some close primaries packed with candidates looking to take advantage. Meanwhile, Republicans will pick their standard-bearers in a handful of key races where the incumbent is stepping off the stage. As always, we’ll contextualize these primaries by using FiveThirtyEight partisan lean1 — how much more Republican or Democratic a jurisdiction is than the country overall — to give you an idea of how competitive each general election will be, as well as whether the parties are choosing the candidates with the best chance to win in November.

Kentucky

Races to watch: 6th Congressional District
Polls close: 6 p.m. Eastern in the eastern part of the state, 7 p.m. Eastern in the western part

Jim Gray and Amy McGrath are two of the most impressive Democratic candidates for office anywhere in the country. It’s just Democrats’ luck that they happen to be running for the same seat. McGrath jumped into the race for Kentucky’s 6th Congressional District in August 2017 with a viral video that emphasized her barrier-breaking military career. But national Democrats reportedly still pushed Gray to run, and in December he kicked off a campaign that checked all of the national party’s preferred boxes: He is wealthy, so he can self-fund his campaign; he is well-liked locally as the mayor of Lexington, the 6th District’s largest city; and he has already won this district once before, as Democrats’ candidate for U.S. Senate in 2016 (he lost statewide but carried the 6th District 52 percent to 48 percent). That’s no easy feat in this district that’s 17 points more Republican-leaning than the country as a whole.

Although you could look at this as an establishment vs. outsider matchup if you squint, Gray and McGrath are in lockstep on the issues, and Democratic strategists are reportedly fine with either candidate. There is a more progressive alternative in the race, state Sen. Reggie Thomas, but he has wanted for money to get his message out, raising only a few hundred thousand dollars. By contrast, Gray has raised $1.3 million, and McGrath $2 million.2 Both front-runners have released internal polls claiming they lead the primary — Gray by 33 points, McGrath by 7 points. Since the two polls aren’t even in the same universe and internal polls are unreliable anyway, feel free to still consider this a wide-open race.

Georgia

Races to watch: 6th and 7th congressional districts; governor
Polls close: 7 p.m. Eastern

From primary to general, the election for Georgia governor promises to be one of 2018’s most fascinating. Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle sits atop a crowded Republican field. The real question is whether he’ll get the 50 percent of the primary vote he’d need to avoid a July runoff. Recent polls have put him at 41 percent and 35 percent. The former may mean he’s close enough to the threshold that he could top 50 percent on election day, when currently undecided voters will have to make a choice; the latter would mean he probably won’t hit the cutoff. In the race for that potential second runoff slot, the same polls show Secretary of State Brian Kemp in second place, then former state Sen. Hunter Hill, then businessman Clay Tippins, then state Sen. Michael Williams.

The campaign has consisted of the candidates tripping over themselves as they run rightward. Cagle made national news when he threatened to eliminate a tax break for Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines in retaliation for Delta ending its relationship with the National Rifle Association. (Cagle’s threat may have backfired by scaring away some business-friendly Republicans.) Kemp has aired some explosive ads, including one where he implicitly threatens his daughter’s suitor with a shotgun. And Williams has campaigned across the state with his “deportation bus,” a gray school bus that reads “fill this bus with illegals” on the side.

By contrast, the Democratic contest will be decided one way or the other on Tuesday, and the two candidates couldn’t be taking more different approaches. Stacey Evans believes that the key to a Democrat winning Georgia is persuading moderate Republicans like those in the rural trailer parks she grew up in or the Atlanta suburb she later represented in the state House. Former state House minority leader Stacey Abrams thinks it’s time to try a new strategy: turning out the hundreds of thousands of black voters who stayed home in 2014 and 2016. Whichever candidate wins on Tuesday, Democrats will most likely need to use some combination of the two strategies if they hope to prevail in November. Georgia is still pretty red, with a partisan lean of R+8.

The two most recent polls of the race agree that Abrams has a nearly 20-point lead — music to the ears of her national fan base. But — and this warning goes for every primary everywhere — polls of primary races are generally more error-prone than general election surveys, so an Evans win wouldn’t really qualify as a shocker.

After last May’s special election, you’ve probably heard enough about Georgia’s 6th Congressional District to last a lifetime, but the R+9 seat is expected to host another competitive election in 2018. Bobby Kaple has parlayed his name recognition as a CBS Atlanta news anchor into front-runner status in the Democratic primary. However, businessman Kevin Abel has raised a comparable amount of money, and prominent gun-control activist Lucy McBath unexpectedly entered the race at the last minute after the shooting in Parkland, Florida. Everytown for Gun Safety, for whom McBath is a national spokeswoman, is making a late push for her with a $540,000 ad buy. Each of the three would bring different strengths to a November matchup with GOP Rep. Karen Handel.

Georgia’s 7th District fits the same suburban profile as the 6th District, but at R+13, it’s a slightly longer shot for Democrats in the fall. Still, six Democrats are vying for the chance to take on GOP Rep. Rob Woodall,3 three of whom have the resources to be competitive: Georgia State University professor Carolyn Bourdeaux, businessman David Kim and attorney Ethan Pham. With the endorsement of Emily’s List (which has a good track record so far this cycle) and the strongest fundraising in the Democratic field, Bourdeaux is both the person to beat in the primary and Democrats’ ideal candidate in the general.

Texas

Races to watch: 7th, 21st, 23rd and 32nd congressional districts; governor
Polls close: 8 p.m. Eastern in most of the state, 9 p.m. Eastern in El Paso and Hudspeth counties

Wait, didn’t Texas already hold its primaries? Well, yes, but more than 30 contests needed to go into overtime because no candidate received 50 percent of the vote. Those runoffs, between the top two finishers from March 6, take place Tuesday.

In the final days of the Democratic primary for Texas’s 7th Congressional District, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee ignited a controversy by releasing opposition research against one of its own candidates, progressive activist Laura Moser. Intended to show Democrats that Moser would go down to certain defeat against Rep. John Culberson in the general election, the smear may instead have rallied anti-establishment voters to Moser’s side, and she finished second in the primary to attorney Lizzie Pannill Fletcher (29 percent to 24 percent).

The runoff has been a relatively drama-free affair, but those battle lines remain drawn, as FiveThirtyEight’s Clare Malone and Galen Druke discussed in a special podcast episode last week. The Fletcher-Moser race actually bears more than a passing resemblance to last week’s Democratic primary in Nebraska’s 2nd District: The two candidates agree on all issues except single-payer health care, but Moser speaks with the defiant tone of the #Resistance, while Fletcher is trying to appeal to both sides of the aisle. In Nebraska, the progressive eked out an upset win; if Moser does the same, it could deal a similar blow4 to Democrats’ chances of picking up a reddish-purple seat (in this case, R+7). In the big picture, a Moser win would suggest strong anti-establishment sentiment among Democratic voters, and the DCCC would surely think twice about intervening in a similar way in a future primary.

Texas’s 21st District is 16 points more Republican-leaning than the nation as a whole, but with the retirement of Rep. Lamar Smith, Democrats may have an opening. Both parties have runoffs in this open seat. For Democrats, Mary Street Wilson edged Joseph Kopser, 31 percent to 29 percent, in the first round, but Kopser, an Army veteran and tech entrepreneur, would be the party’s stronger candidate in a general election. Unlike Wilson (who has pulled in less than $100,000 all cycle), Kopser has proved that he can raise funds. For the GOP, former Ted Cruz chief of staff Chip Roy (27 percent in the first round) faces off with perennial candidate Matt McCall (17 percent). Bet on Roy, whose campaign has been backed by $584,000 in TV and mail ads from the Club for Growth.

Texas’s 23rd District is the state’s most evenly matched district between Democrats and Republicans (it has an R+1 partisan lean), but it’s also the one with the least competitive primary. Gina Ortiz Jones, a gay Air Force veteran, is looking to become the first Filipina-American congresswoman. Before she can take on incumbent Republican Will Hurd, however, she will need to defeat Rick Treviño, a progressive teacher in the mold of Bernie Sanders, in the Democratic runoff. It should be an easy task: Ortiz Jones has outraised Treviño $1.2 million to $49,000, and having beaten him 41 percent to 17 percent in the first round, she doesn’t need to pick up much more support to get to a majority.

It’s a similar story in Texas’s final competitive House race, the 32nd District (R+5), in the fight to take on Rep. Pete Sessions. Former NFL player Colin Allred led the Democratic primary in March with 38 percent to businesswoman Lillian Salerno’s 18 percent, and the DCCC responded by adding him to its “Red to Blue” program. Salerno does, at least, have the cash ($666,000 raised) to make it a real race, and the Emily’s List endorsee may benefit from a year when female candidates seem to be doing well.

Finally, Democrats’ choice for governor could set the tone for Democratic campaigns statewide. Lupe Valdez, the gay Latina former sheriff of Dallas County, excites progressives with her diversity and is favored by those who believe motivating Latino voters is Texas Democrats’ recipe for success. Having received 43 percent of the vote in March, she’s the favorite in the runoff against self-described “very conservative Democrat” Andrew White. White, the son of former Gov. Mark White, has had more funds at his disposal thanks to a $1 million loan he made to his own campaign. Like in Georgia, it’s debatable whose strategy truly gives Democrats the best path in the general election. Although it could have coattail effects on down-ballot races, it’s probably academic for this one; neither Valdez nor White is given much of a chance against incumbent Gov. Greg Abbott.

Arkansas

Races to watch: 2nd Congressional District; governor
Polls close: 8:30 p.m. Eastern

This round of primaries ends not with a bang, but with the whimper of a razorback piglet. Arkansas’s lone competitive election in November is expected to be in GOP Rep. French Hill’s 2nd Congressional District. With $602,000 raised and a 30-point polling lead, state Rep. Clarke Tucker looks like the favorite in the Democratic primary, but another good election night for progressives could propel one of Tucker’s three more liberal opponents (most likely teacher Paul Spencer, the best-funded among the more liberal trio) to an upset. National Democrats have not been shy about the fact that they think only Tucker can win this R+14 seat, and they’ve already added him to their “Red to Blue” program.

The only other primary action in Arkansas is for governor, where both parties have an obvious front-runner … probably. Gun-range owner Jan Morgan is primarying Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson from the right, but a Talk Business & Politics-Hendrix College poll gave the incumbent a 58-to-31-percent lead. Although it’s not expected to be a competitive general election, Jared Henderson has a slight leg up on Leticia Sanders for the Democratic nomination.

Footnotes

  1. The average difference between how the jurisdiction 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.

  2. McGrath has already spent $1.7 million of that, which could help her in the primary but hurt her if she advances penniless to the general election against well-funded incumbent Republican Andy Barr.

  3. Woodall’s primary challenger has raised less than a tenth as much as the incumbent, so Woodall will likely earn his party’s nomination.

  4. Meaningful but not fatal.

Nathaniel Rakich is FiveThirtyEight’s elections analyst.

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