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Primary Briefing: Missouri, Kansas, Michigan And Washington

After a quiet July, the primary calendar roars back to life in August. Here at FiveThirtyEight, that means putting our trusty primary-preview-writing pen to paper (did you miss us?) and cranking up the ol’ live blog (join us Tuesday night as we digest some results). We’ve got four states coming at you this week:


Races to watch: Proposition A
Polls close: 8 p.m. Eastern

The primary is a formality in the one Missouri campaign that everyone’s following this year: the U.S. Senate race. Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill will almost certainly face (spoiler alert!) Republican Josh Hawley, the state attorney general, in one of the marquee matchups of the 2018 Senate map. Nevertheless, Missouri will still play host to one of Tuesday’s most consequential elections: a ballot measure, Proposition A, that would allow non-union members who benefit from a collective-bargaining agreement to not pay union dues.

Missouri’s Republican-dominated legislature originally passed Senate Bill 19, commonly referred to as a “right-to-work” law, in 2017, but outraged labor unions turned to an already-energized liberal electorate and collected three times the number of signatures needed to subject the law to a voter referendum. After being dealt heavy blows in other Midwestern states and, recently, the U.S. Supreme Court, organized labor has gone all-in to defeat the right-to-work law in Missouri, raising $16.1 million and dwarfing the $4.3 million raised by supporters of Proposition A. (Since the vote is technically on whether to adopt Senate Bill 19, a “yes” vote is a vote for right-to-work rules.) So far, it looks like they’re succeeding: According to the most recent poll, the referendum is poised to fail 56 percent to 38 percent. The vote is being watched nationally and will be viewed as either a needed symbolic win or a devastating symbolic loss for the labor movement.


Races to watch: 2nd and 3rd congressional districts; governor
Polls close: 8 p.m. Eastern in most of the state, 9 p.m. Eastern in a few westerly counties

After Republican Rep. Lynn Jenkins announced her retirement from Kansas’s 2nd Congressional District and former state House Minority Leader Paul Davis said he would run for the Democrats, Republicans openly fretted that none of their seven candidates was strong enough to beat him, despite the district’s R+20 partisan lean1 — a measure of how much more Republican- or Democratic-leaning an area is than the country as a whole. Now, for better or for worse, they’ll pick one of those seven. Spending on behalf of Army veteran and former Iditarod musher Steve Watkins — half from his own campaign, half from a super PAC run by his father — has totaled more than all the other Republican candidates’ spending combined. Anyone else the GOP nominates — say, state Sen. Caryn Tyson, state Sen. Steve Fitzgerald or former state House Speaker Doug Mays — could struggle to play financially in Davis’s league (he’s raised $1.6 million).

The Democratic primary is anyone’s ballgame in the 3rd Congressional District, where Republican Rep. Kevin Yoder is defending an R+4 seat. Each wing of the party is represented. Bernie Sanders has endorsed former labor lawyer Brent Welder. Emily’s List is spending $400,000 to promote Native American activist Sharice Davids, who could probably beat you up. As a teacher at an elite private high school, Tom Niermann has the moderate cred to win over country-club Republicans in this well-educated district around Kansas City. That would normally suggest he’d give Democrats the best chance to win in November, but a poll sponsored by a progressive group also showed Welder doing well.

Sensing the chance for a pickup, Democrats have their first contested primary for Kansas governor since 1998. State Sen. Laura Kelly is the pick of the local political establishment, including former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, and it shows in her muscular fundraising. Former state Secretary of Agriculture Joshua Svaty’s campaign is almost like a modern-day incarnation of the Populist Party, the progressive agrarian political movement that won five states (including Kansas) in the 1892 presidential election. Svaty has devoted his campaign to winning back rural voters by combining liberal positions, like Medicaid expansion, with conservative ones, like opposition to abortion. The campaign has been defined by the Planned Parenthood-endorsed Kelly attacking Svaty for his pro-life record and Svaty attacking Kelly for her votes against gun restrictions and for voting restrictions. Former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer, a more mainstream liberal, has emerged mostly unscathed. He is running to be Kansas’s first black governor and could be a strong general-election candidate despite the state’s R+23 partisan lean.

Elevated to the office early this year after the resignation of Sam Brownback, Gov. Jeff Colyer is running for his first full term. But first he has to beat Secretary of State Kris Kobach in the Republican primary. Kobach is the rare down-ballot state executive to have a national profile, thanks to his divisive role on President Trump’s Commission on Election Integrity and zealous efforts to prosecute voter fraud (despite scant evidence that it exists in any abundance). That’s left him with a higher profile than Colyer but also higher unfavorable ratings among Republicans.

Embarrassing headlines have beset Kobach throughout the campaign: In April, he was held in contempt for disobeying a court order. In June, a court overturned his main policy priority, a law requiring that Kansans provide proof of citizenship when registering to vote, as unconstitutional. Just last week, ProPublica reported on how Kobach — doing his best Lyle Lanley impression — convinced several small towns to pass strict anti-immigration ordinances, then personally profited from defending them in court, with little success. There’s little question that Kobach is Republicans’ weakest play in the general election: A mid-July poll showed Colyer leading Kelly by 10 points, but Kobach trailing the Democrat by 1.


Races to watch: U.S. Senate; 1st, 6th, 9th, 11th and 13th congressional districts; governor
Polls close: 8 p.m. Eastern in most of the state, 9 p.m. Eastern in four counties on the Upper Peninsula

The Republican primary for Michigan governor is a question of who is more in touch with the modern GOP: Trump or outgoing Gov. Rick Snyder. So far, Trump is winning handily. The president endorsed state Attorney General Bill Schuette last September, and Schuette has led in primary polls throughout the race. The latest average has him 16 points ahead of Lt. Gov. Brian Calley. Schuette has kept his opponent down by reminding primary voters that Calley renounced his support for Trump after the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape in 2016 — an episode that likely played a role in Trump’s decision to endorse Calley’s opponent.

Meanwhile, Calley’s loyalty to Snyder (who has endorsed him) may hurt more than it helps, given the governor’s -15 net approval rating. Schuette has even prosecuted members of the Snyder administration for their actions related to the Flint water crisis, while Calley has been the face of the administration’s defense. Even the specter of an FBI investigation into Schuette’s use of state resources doesn’t seem to have done much to change the trajectory of the race.

For Democrats, former state Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer has led most recent polls by 20 points or more, but there are a few warning signs for her campaign. The highest-quality poll2 of the race showed a much closer contest and came as her closest rival, Shri Thanedar, reported pouring $10 million of his own money into the race. Thanedar is campaigning as the progressive antidote to Whitmer’s establishment persona, but his business record and level of commitment to his positions (he reportedly considered running as a Republican) have been called into question. Perhaps to blunt Thanedar’s momentum, Sanders recently announced his support for former Detroit health director Abdul El-Sayed, and Sanders and fellow progressive hero Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a democratic socialist who recently won the Democratic nomination for a New York congressional seat, have committed to an aggressive campaign schedule on El-Sayed’s behalf. Whitmer is likely Democrats’ strongest general-election candidate for this slightly Republican-leaning (R+0.3) state: She is the only one who comfortably defeats Schuette in polling, and Republicans have covertly attacked her from the left in an effort to defeat her in the primary.

The open 11th Congressional District (R+7) is an electoral trifecta: a competitive Democratic primary, a competitive Republican primary and a toss-up race in November. An EPIC-MRA poll suggests that the Democratic front-runners are Tim Greimel, a state representative; Haley Stevens, who played a starring role in the Obama administration’s efforts to save General Motors and Chrysler; and Suneel Gupta, who is running on his unusual background as the co-founder of a health startup (with his brother Sanjay — maybe you’ve heard of him). For Republicans, Lena Epstein, the co-chair of the Trump campaign in Michigan, has parlayed a $1 million personal investment into front-runner status. A trio of current and former state legislators — former state Rep. A. Rocky Raczkowski, state Rep. Klint Kesto and state Sen. Mike Kowall — are her closest competition. Former Congressman Kerry Bentivolio — a reindeer farmer who plays Santa Claus on the side — is also attempting a comeback, but it’s not expected to go anywhere.

For U.S. Senate, 37-year-old military veteran John James looks like the likely Republican nominee over 61-year-old financier Sandy Pensler. The two were locked in a tight race when Trump endorsed James on July 27. Neither candidate is favored to beat longtime Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow in November, but the primary will be another data point in the debate over the value of Trump’s endorsement. Likewise, GOP Rep. Fred Upton will be tough to dislodge from Michigan’s 6th Congressional District (R+9), but Democrats will try to choose the best person for the job. Top Michigan Democrats are behind former Kellogg lobbyist George Franklin, but he has come under fire for demeaning descriptions of women in his memoir. Physician Matt Longjohn has raised almost as much money as Franklin and could swing the upset. And keep an eye on the 1st District (R+21): Republican Rep. Jack Bergman has a chance to run unopposed in November, but that all depends on whether Matt Morgan gets enough write-in votes in the Democratic primary. Morgan, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel, was impressing observers with his strong fundraising before getting booted from the ballot in June over a paperwork mistake on his nominating petitions.

Finally, Democratic primaries in solidly blue districts will decide the likely next member of Congress in two open seats. In the 9th District (D+7), Andy Levin, benefitting from plenty of establishment and union backing, probably thought he would have no trouble winning a seat that his father and uncle have held for the last 40 years. But then Emily’s List backed former state Rep. Ellen Lipton, who has outraised the dynastic favorite $1.1 million to $900,000. Both candidates support Medicare for all and agree on many other progressive priorities, so this one may hinge on the Levin family name vs. the “Year of the Woman.” A poll in late July gave Levin a 23-point lead. In the 13th District (D+61), polls suggest it’s a three-person race. Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones is organized labor’s candidate and is doing especially well with African-American voters. Former state Rep. Rashida Tlaib, seeking to become the first Muslim woman in Congress, has harnessed the progressive grassroots movement to the tune of over $1 million in donations. And if the Detroit vote winds up split between these candidates, that could throw victory to Bill Wild, the white mayor of suburban Westland who is the race’s only candidate from outside the city.


Races to watch: 3rd, 5th and 8th congressional districts
Ballots due: 11 p.m. Eastern

Primaries in Washington state are important to watch for two reasons: to see who’s on the November ballot, sure, but also as a dry run for the state’s vote in November. Like California, Washington uses a top-two primary, meaning that all candidates — Democrats, Republicans and independents — run on the same ballot on Tuesday, with only the top two finishers advancing to the general election. Historically, the combined total vote share of all the Democratic candidates vs. that of all the Republican candidates has closely matched the eventual two-party margin in November.

Pay special attention to the margins in the 3rd District and the 5th District. In the latter, Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Democrat Lisa Brown are almost assured to advance to the general election, but analysts disagree on whether McMorris Rodgers — the No. 4 Republican in the House — is in any serious danger of losing this R+15 seat. Same with the 3rd District (R+9), which is either “Safe Republican” or “Likely Republican” depending on whom you ask. Voters in the 3rd will also choose which Democrat they want to face GOP Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler. The likeliest options, based on fundraising prowess, are self-described pragmatist Carolyn Long or self-funding progressive David McDevitt.

Everyone, though, agrees that the open 8th District (D+0.1) is a toss-up. State Sen. Dino Rossi has one of the top two spots all but locked up for the GOP, leaving three well-funded Democrats to battle for the second. An internal poll by the Democrat-affiliated House Majority PAC suggested that, of the three, former prosecutor Jason Rittereiser appeals the most to independents. That’s a bit odd (or not), because Rittereiser is in favor of single-payer health care and turned heads with an ad accusing Trump of treason. However, opponents Shannon Hader and Kim Schrier, both women and doctors, are arguing that Congress doesn’t need another male attorney in its ranks. Schrier enjoys the backing of Emily’s List and is thought to be the front-runner.

Results will start to be released shortly after 11 p.m. Eastern, but don’t stay up too late waiting for them all to be counted — Washington votes by mail, and ballots can be postmarked as late as Election Day, meaning results won’t be final for days.


  1. 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.

  2. Going by FiveThirtyEight’s pollster ratings.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.