Skip to main content
ABC News
Primary Briefing: Vermont, Connecticut, Minnesota And Wisconsin

It’s Rivalry Week on the primary circuit! This Tuesday, Gophers and Badgers will compete for your attention with eight competitive races between them, while voters will set the stage for choosing their next governor in Connecticut and Vermont, which, um, I’m sure have some dispute over fall foliage or something. Bone up on the primaries to watch this week and, as usual, be sure to join us for our live blog on Tuesday night.


Races to watch: Governor
Polls close: 7 p.m. Eastern

These election-night previews try to focus on how primaries might affect the general election: Are parties nominating their strongest candidates? Usually, though, differences in candidate quality are pretty minor — enough to move a race from “likely Republican” to “lean Republican,” for instance. But the Republican primary for Vermont governor is the once-in-a-blue-moon primary that could have the maximum possible impact on the general election: A bad result for the GOP could move this race all the way from “solid Republican” to “solid Democratic.”

Gov. Phil Scott, a centrist Republican stock-car driver, was once one of the most popular governors in the country — beloved by Republicans, Democrats and independents. But then, in April, he signed three historic gun-control laws, drawing fierce protests from residents of this traditionally pro-gun state. In a Morning Consult poll conducted after the signing, Scott’s popularity among Republicans dropped by 26 percentage points, and he now has a -15 net approval rating with voters of his own party. That could be a problem on Tuesday, given that shopkeeper Keith Stern is challenging Scott from the right, specifically criticizing Scott for signing the gun bills. The Republican Governors Association is acting like this is a competitive race: It has invested more than $1 million in a PAC supporting Scott’s re-election.

If Scott does lose the primary, then Stern, a more mainstream conservative, would instantly become a heavy underdog in this dark-blue state. (Going by our new and improved partisan lean metric,1 Vermont is 24 points more Democratic-leaning than the country as a whole.) Although none of the Democratic candidates has lit the world on fire financially, the favorite in the Democratic primary is probably former Vermont Electric Cooperative CEO Christine Hallquist, who, if elected, would be the nation’s first transgender governor.


Races to watch: 5th Congressional District; governor
Polls close: 8 p.m. Eastern

Twelve years after Ned Lamont famously defeated Sen. Joe Lieberman in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate — then went on to lose the general election to Lieberman, who was running as an independent — the liberal former cable executive is the party-endorsed candidate for governor. He still has to get past Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim in the primary, though. Democrats would surely rather march into the general election with Lamont’s millions than Ganim’s criminal record; he served seven years in prison for a kickback scheme he ran as mayor before he was voted back into office in 2015.

But Republicans have a good shot at winning the governorship too. Two wealthy outsiders, hedge fund manager David Stemerman and former UBS and General Electric executive Bob Stefanowski, have dominated spending in that race, with Stemerman investing nearly $13 million of his own money. Three other Republicans — including the winner of the state party endorsement at the May convention, Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton — are prohibited from spending more than $1.6 million each because of their participation in Connecticut’s public campaign-financing program. Nevertheless, lobbying firm Tremont Public Advisors conducted a poll that found Boughton with a double-digit lead.

The open 5th Congressional District is the Constitution State’s most competitive House seat (it has a D+1 partisan lean), but handicappers think its next congresswoman will emerge from the Democratic primary. Jahana Hayes tells a compelling story about shaking off poverty and a teenage pregnancy to win the 2016 National Teacher of the Year award, while Mary Glassman touts her experience in town government and the state Capitol. Both are progressive on the issues, but Glassman enjoys the endorsement of the state party, while Hayes has flatly promised not to vote for Nancy Pelosi for speaker. Whoever wins will face the victor of the Republican primary, a three-way race among former Meriden Mayor Manny Santos, retired professor Ruby Corby O’Neill and businessman Rich DuPont.


Races to watch: U.S. Senate; 1st, 5th and 8th congressional districts; governor
Polls close: 9 p.m. Eastern

Two open U.S. House seats in Minnesota are a 2018 rarity: a chance for Republicans to play offense. Jim Hagedorn has failed three times before to win the 1st Congressional District (R+11), losing to outgoing Rep. Tim Walz twice, but the state GOP is nonetheless embracing him in 2018. He earned the state party endorsement and has raised almost twice as much as his main competition in the primary, state Sen. Carla Nelson. The Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party is hoping that opposition to President Trump’s tariffs can help Dan Feehan, who served in the Department of Defense under former President Obama, keep the traditionally agricultural district in Democratic hands.

On the other hand, Trump’s tariffs are popular in the northeast quadrant of the state: the Iron Range-dominated 8th District (R+10). The five Democrats running there come from all over the map — both literally (each has a base in a different corner of the district) and on the issues. Former state Rep. Joe Radinovich, retiring Rep. Rick Nolan’s preferred heir, is running a meat-and-potatoes campaign on issues like Medicare for all. State Rep. Jason Metsa is the most pro-mining candidate but otherwise espouses a Bernie Sanders-esque platform. Former TV reporter Michelle Lee is loudly and proudly anti-mining and anti-Trump; she’s expected to do well with the environmentalist bloc in Duluth. She may also have an advantage as a woman competing against two somewhat hard-to-distinguish 30-something, organized-labor-backed veterans of the state Capitol. (The other two DFLers in the race aren’t seen as strong contenders.) The winner will likely go up against a strong Republican recruit in St. Louis County Commissioner Pete Stauber, who played three seasons of professional hockey for the Detroit Red Wings’ top farm team.

The 5th District is also open (outgoing Rep. Keith Ellison’s own primary for attorney general has drawn headlines), but with a D+52 partisan lean, it should be a safe hold for the DFL. State Rep. Ilhan Omar, the first Somali-American legislator elected anywhere in the country, is now seeking to be among the first Muslim women in the U.S. Congress. She’s running in the DFL primary against state Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, who was the first Latina in the Minnesota Senate, and former state House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, one of the most powerful women in Minnesota political history. The three candidates all say they would abolish ICE, implement single-payer health care and probably even impeach Trump.

But Minnesota’s most bruising primary has surely been for governor. State Rep. Erin Murphy won the DFL endorsement plus that of Emily’s List, but some Democrats worry that she is too closely associated with the Twin Cities metro to win back voters in greater Minnesota, which leached Democratic support in 2016. Walz has a substantial financial advantage, but his pro-gun positions developed as a rural lawmaker won’t help him in a DFL primary. Then there’s Attorney General Lori Swanson, who jumped into the race at the last minute but has had a rough go of it: First, her running mate, Nolan, was accused of insensitivity to sexual harassment in his congressional office; then a former staffer in the attorney general’s office said he was pressured to do campaign work for Swanson, and in response, she broadcast the staffer’s criminal record using official state resources. An NBC News/Marist poll giving Swanson a 28-24 lead over Walz was conducted before either of those stories broke.

Republicans will choose between two familiar faces in former Gov. Tim Pawlenty and 2014 nominee Jeff Johnson. Pawlenty has raised seven times the cash of Johnson in 2018, and he led in the Marist poll 51 percent to 32 percent. With his bipartisan record and proven ability to win statewide, Pawlenty is the one Republican who can make this general election a toss-up, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have vulnerabilities: Johnson, who won the state party endorsement at the activist-filled GOP convention, has attacked him for being a D.C. lobbyist. (Pawlenty has spent the years since his aborted 2012 presidential run working in Washington as CEO of the Financial Services Roundtable.)

Finally, appointed incumbent Tina Smith is the odds-on favorite to win the DFL nomination in Minnesota’s special election for U.S. Senate, but the candidacy of Richard Painter will give us an interesting data point. Painter is a well-credentialed former Republican (he worked in the George W. Bush White House) who left the party because of Trump. If he gets a sizable number of votes, it could indicate that disgruntled, anti-Trump Republicans could be a newly formidable voting bloc within the Democratic Party, including in the 2020 presidential primaries.


Races to watch: U.S. Senate; 1st Congressional District; governor
Polls close: 9 p.m. Eastern

The Democratic primary for Wisconsin governor has seven serious contenders, and in such a crowded field, the eventual winner could be coronated with 20 percent or less of the vote. Mahlon Mitchell, the head of the state firefighters’ union, has developed a reputation for shooting from the hip on the campaign trail. Mike McCabe has led several nonpartisan reform groups. Former state party chair and attorney Matt Flynn has come under fire for representing the Archdiocese of Milwaukee in sex-abuse cases. Former state Rep. Kelda Roys, endorsed by Emily’s List, made national news for an ad in which she breastfed her daughter. State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout brings experience winning a Republican-leaning rural district. Paul Soglin is famous for his decades of liberal activism as the mayor of the “People’s Republic of Madison.” But it is state education chief Tony Evers, with three statewide wins under his belt, who leads in every primary poll. The guess here is that Evers or Vinehout would do the best in November against GOP Gov. Scott Walker, while Flynn or Soglin would do the worst.

Wisconsin’s U.S. Senate race has fallen off the radar a little bit, but at least two Republicans are still hoping to unseat Tammy Baldwin. State Sen. Leah Vukmir is the pick of the local GOP establishment and has $2.5 million in PAC spending behind her, but that’s nothing compared with the $10.7 million that Republican uber-donor Richard Uihlein has spent plugging 40-year-old Marine veteran and business consultant Kevin Nicholson. Even though Nicholson is backed by some of the most conservative names in Republican politics, Vukmir partisans have questioned whether he’s a real Republican. Nicholson was president of the College Democrats of America and spoke at the 2000 Democratic National Convention, although he says he left that event “absolutely sure I was not a Democrat.” But he worked for Democrats in Minnesota in 2002, voted in the 2008 presidential primary2 and remained a registered Democrat until 2010.

Randy Bryce — better known as “Iron Stache” — went viral last summer when the Democratic ironworker announced his campaign against Speaker Paul Ryan in Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District (R+12). He was added to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s Red to Blue List and began reeling in his current total of $6.3 million raised before claiming credit for scaring Ryan into retirement. But since last summer, Bryce has endured bad headline after bad headline: about his nine arrests, including one for driving under the influence; about his delinquent child-support payments and personal debts; and about his views on labor unions and the GOP tax-cut bill. His Democratic opponent, Janesville School Board member Cathy Myers, has seized on the controversies (although she herself was accused of a conflict of interest in 2015) and hasn’t shied away from contrasting her gender with Bryce’s indelicate tweets about women. Her strategy may be paying off: Myers has raised $1.3 million — no Iron Stache haul, but a hefty sum for an ordinary congressional race — and she ran even with Bryce in a poll of the Democratic primary sponsored by a conservative super PAC. I’d even call Myers the stronger general-election candidate, given Bryce’s tendency to spend campaign funds in head-scratching ways.

Watch the Republican primary here, too: The GOP will probably nominate University of Wisconsin Regent Bryan Steil, a former Ryan aide who has earned the speaker’s endorsement. But Paul Nehlen has spent more money on his campaign than Steil has, and voters might know Nehlen better for his briefly hip primary challenge to Ryan in 2016 than for his anti-Semitic and white-supremacist Twitter rants earlier this year.

Check out all the polls we’ve been collecting ahead of the 2018 midterms.


  1. We’ll have something more official on this when we launch our U.S. House forecasting model, but we’ve tweaked the formula to now include results from races for state legislature, although the calculation is still based primarily on presidential results.

  2. He says he voted “no preference,” though voting records indicate that he cast a vote for either Obama, Hillary Clinton or Mike Gravel.

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