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Primary Briefing: Virginia, Nevada, South Carolina, North Dakota

We’re halfway home, election junkies. Going into this week, 21 states have held their primary elections for 2018; on Tuesday, we add Maine, Nevada, North Dakota, South Carolina and Virginia to that list. From Charlottesville to Carson City, from Bangor to Bismarck, here’s what to watch for in this week’s primaries.


Races to watch: U.S. Senate; 7th and 10th congressional districts
Polls close: 7 p.m. Eastern

In an alternate universe, Tim Kaine would have been elected vice president, and we’d have seen a special election in Virginia to determine his replacement in the U.S. Senate. In reality, Kaine is attempting to remain in the Senate, and he looks pretty safe even though Virginia is just 2 percentage points more Democratic than the nation, according to FiveThirtyEight’s partisan lean metric.1 Top-tier Republican challengers have given the race a pass. Of those who have entered the fray, the favorite is probably Prince William County Supervisor Corey Stewart, who nearly won the GOP nomination for governor in 2017 while railing against the removal of Confederate war memorials and whom Steve Bannon has called the “titular head of the Trump movement” in Virginia. The GOP establishment reportedly fears that Stewart’s harsh rhetoric against undocumented immigrants and ties to white nationalists would drag down all their Virginia candidates in November. Running against Stewart is the Rev. E.W. Jackson, who lost a 2013 campaign for lieutenant governor while defending comments he made likening homosexuality to pedophilia and Planned Parenthood to the Ku Klux Klan. And the closest thing this election has to an establishment pick is state Del. Nick Freitas. But he caused a stir in March when he linked the “abortion industry” to mass shootings in a speech on the floor of the Virginia House of Delegates.

Two of Virginia’s four swingy congressional districts sport spirited primaries.2 In the 7th District, former covert CIA operative Abigail Spanberger and retired Marine Dan Ward are competing for the Democratic nomination to face GOP Rep. Dave Brat in November. Each has raised nearly $900,000 and emphasizes his or her appeal to swing voters in this R+10 district. But there are subtle differences: Spanberger has more endorsements from state and national Democrats, while Ward has been more vocal in his opposition to President Trump.

But the primary that has gotten the most attention in Old Dominion is the one for the 10th District (D+5), where six Democrats want to be the one to take on Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock in a suburban area that is rapidly turning blue.3 Yet unlike in many districts with competitive primaries, the Democrats in the 10th aren’t rushing to one another’s left; for instance, only one supports single-payer health care. Indeed, because this affluent area is literally the establishment’s home turf (many government workers live here), an insider-ish, bridge-building message may be the winning one.

Most observers give the edge to state Sen. Jennifer Wexton, who has Gov. Ralph Northam’s endorsement and touts her ability to work with Republicans. Likewise, Lindsey Davis Stover emphasizes her 12 years of federal government experience, including working in the Department of Veterans Affairs and Congress. Dan Helmer has stood out for his support from VoteVets, a liberal group that supports veterans running for office, and his controversial/cheesy campaign ads. Meanwhile, former Obama State Department official Alison Friedman has spent $1.8 million in the race, more than twice any other Democrat. Gun control has emerged as a major issue in the race. Wexton’s opponents have criticized her for ceding too much ground to the GOP on the issue in a 2016 compromise bill. Wexton has responded by pointing to her “F” rating from the National Rifle Association and the anti-gun provisions of the legislation: “This is what you do when you govern. You compromise.”

South Carolina

Races to watch: 1st and 5th congressional districts; governor
Polls close: 7 p.m. Eastern

Henry McMaster helped Donald Trump get elected president when, as South Carolina lieutenant governor, he became the highest-ranking elected official in the country to endorse Trump as of January 2016. Trump then helped McMaster get his current job as South Carolina’s governor by naming then-Gov. Nikki Haley his ambassador to the United Nations. McMaster is now running for his first full term, but Catherine Templeton is giving him a serious Republican primary challenge. Templeton is campaigning as the second coming of Haley, in whose administration she served, and dishing out plenty of conservative red meat along the way. McMaster led Templeton 37 percent to 25 percent in a late-May Target Insyght poll, suggesting that the race may be headed for a runoff. (If no one tops 50 percent in this week’s primary, the top two finishers will square off head to head on June 26.) The reason a majority may be out of reach is that the primary has suddenly turned into a three-way contest: Businessman John Warren has recently spent $3 million of his own money blasting out his conservative-outsider message. Warren took 20 percent in that survey, up 19 percentage points from early April.

South Carolina is 16 points more Republican-leaning than the country as a whole, so the winner of the GOP primary should coast to victory in November. And there are three Democrats battling for the chance to be a part of that contest. Major figures from former Vice President Joe Biden to U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn have endorsed state Rep. James Smith, but he has yet to break away from a Democratic field that also includes businessman Phil Noble and attorney Marguerite Willis.

In the 1st Congressional District, the Republican incumbent, former Gov. Mark Sanford — you remember him, right? — is also fending off a primary challenge from the right. State Rep. Katie Arrington is telling Sanford to “take a hike” because of his public critiques of Trump and relatively low rate of voting in line with Trump’s positions — all with a generous helping of allusions to his infamous “Appalachian Trail” affair in 2009. As of May 23, Arrington’s campaign had outspent Sanford’s, and a last-minute poll by a local political consulting firm (with — grain of salt alert — unknown allegiances in the race) puts the two in a statistical tie. This is a bright crimson (R+17) district, but the Cook Political Report believes the race has the potential to develop into a competitive general election.

Finally, in the 5th District, it will be interesting to see whether Archie Parnell, who shot to national fame after he almost won the 2017 special election here,4 loses the Democratic primary to one of his no-name challengers (including a literal clown) after he admitted becoming violent with his ex-wife in the 1970s. It likely won’t matter for November, since this district is a whopping 19 points more Republican-leaning than the nation as a whole.


Races to watch: 2nd Congressional District; governor; Question 1
Polls close: 8 p.m. Eastern

Whom Mainers choose to run in two of the most competitive campaigns in the nation — for governor and the 2nd Congressional District — isn’t as interesting as how they will choose them. Thanks to a 2016 ballot measure, Tuesday will be the first time in U.S. history that a state has used ranked-choice voting5 in a statewide election. Thanks to a 2018 ballot measure, it might also be the last. We’ll have much more to say about this week’s elections in the Pine Tree State in its own separate preview article.

North Dakota

Races to watch: None
Polls close: Polls begin to close at 8 p.m. Eastern, but the last ones don’t close until 9 p.m.

In November, North Dakota will play host to one of the nation’s most closely watched U.S. Senate races; this week, though, it will hold the nation’s least interesting primaries. U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer is almost certain to win the Republican primary to face Democratic U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp. And state Sen. Kelly Armstrong is the prohibitive favorite in both the Republican primary and the general election to fill Cramer’s at-large House seat. You can safely cast your eyes elsewhere on Tuesday night.


Races to watch: 3rd and 4th congressional districts; governor
Polls close: 10 p.m. Eastern

This much we know: Nevada’s U.S. Senate race is almost surely going to be between Democratic Rep. Jacky Rosen and Republican Sen. Dean Heller. We have much less of an idea who will succeed Rosen in Nevada’s 3rd Congressional District. The Republican primary here could have huge consequences for who is favored to carry this swing seat (R+3) in November. State Sen. Scott Hammond and former KLAS-TV reporter Michelle Mortensen were the big names in the Republican field … until businessman Danny Tarkanian jumped into the race with Trump’s endorsement in March. Tarkanian’s fame among grassroots conservatives (and Nevada basketball fans) makes him a force to be reckoned with in the primary, but his troubled personal finances and track record of losing elections make him a weak general-election candidate. (He was the GOP’s nominee here in 2016 and lost what many thought was a winnable race by 1 point.) Look for philanthropist Susie Lee, who has the support of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, ex-Sen. Harry Reid, Emily’s List and pretty much everybody else, to breeze to the Democratic nomination.

Two former representatives of the 4th District are the front-runners in their respective primaries for their old seat: Republican Cresent Hardy and Democrat Steven Horsford. Horsford has spent more than twice as much as any of his Democratic rivals and has the backing of the powerful Culinary Union and DCCC. Horsford’s name recognition in this Democratic-leaning (D+4) district makes him the favorite for November, but an upset primary win by Medicare-for-all activist Amy Vilela or progressive state Sen. Pat Spearman might make this race more more of a tossup.

In the 4th District, as in so many Democratic primaries around the country, progressive insurgents are targeting establishment favorites who are still fairly liberal on the issues. But the Democratic primary for governor is a rarity — a true ideological referendum. Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak is running an unabashedly centrist campaign: “I’m not real liberal, I’m not real conservative. Some people would like me to be more liberal than I am.” Because that’s a good way to win a general election in a D+1 state like Nevada, Sisolak locked down the support of Reid’s robust political machine and looked unstoppable early on. But Sisolak’s fellow county commissioner Chris Giunchigliani (better known as Chris G) wants to give voters a liberal alternative, and she is getting plenty of air and ground support from the state teachers’ union (which Giunchigliani used to lead) and Emily’s List. It’s been a nasty campaign, with Sisolak’s attacks alleging that Giunchigliani watered down an anti-child-molestation law provoking a powerful response ad. The race may or may not be tied, as a pro-Giunchigliani poll claims, but Sisolak at least feels threatened enough that he’s burned through most of a campaign war chest that was once valued at $5.8 million. That may just wind up benefiting the eventual Republican nominee: most likely staunch conservative Attorney General Adam Laxalt, but possibly maverick state Treasurer Dan Schwartz, who has attacked Laxalt for his supposed conflicts of interest.


  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. The other two are the 2nd District — where Democrat Elaine Luria and the Republican incumbent, Rep. Scott Taylor, will likely move on to the general election — and the open 5th District, where the parties decided not to host primaries at all. Party confabs there already chose Democrat Leslie Cockburn and Republican Denver Riggleman as their nominees.

  3. After Mitt Romney won the 10th District by 1 percentage point in 2012, Hillary Clinton won it by 10 points in 2016. In last year’s Virginia gubernatorial race, Democrat Ralph Northam carried it by 13 points.

  4. It was left vacant after Trump appointed former Rep. Mick Mulvaney to be director of the Office of Management and Budget.

  5. Where voters rank candidates from their highest to lowest preference, and then the candidate with the fewest first-place votes is eliminated and his or her votes redistributed based on the second-place votes. This process continues until one candidate reaches a majority.

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