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The Early Races To Watch On The Biggest Primary Day Of 2018

Despite all you may have read, California isn’t the only state holding primaries on Tuesday. In fact, this week is the closest we get to Super Tuesday in a non-presidential-election year: Eight states are holding primaries from sea to shining sea — that’s so many that this week’s primary preview is coming to you in parts. We’ll serve them up to you in the same order in which we’ll tackle them on Tuesday night’s FiveThirtyEight live blog: starting with the three states east of the Mississippi whose polls close at 8 p.m. Eastern.

Alabama

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

No Alabama elections are expected to be close in November. Most aren’t even expected to be competitive in the primary, like the nominally contested Republican gubernatorial primary in which popular Gov. Kay Ivey is expected to crush Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle and other comers.

But the 2nd Congressional District could be an exception. There, Republican Rep. Martha Roby could become the next congressional incumbent to lose a primary this cycle … though probably not until July. Roby put a target on her back in 2016 when she announced she would not support Donald Trump in the aftermath of the “Access Hollywood” tape; furious Trump supporters waged a write-in campaign against her that dramatically cut down her margin of victory. Roby has taken pains to cozy up to the White House since President Trump’s win, but she has still drawn serious primary opposition from two diehard Trumpists: Rich Hobson, Roy Moore’s former campaign manager, and former Rep. Bobby Bright, Roby’s Democratic predecessor who has loaned his own campaign more than $300,000. While Bright or Hobson probably won’t beat Roby outright on Tuesday — Roby has outraised them both and holds the advantage of incumbency — all they need to do is keep her from winning more than 50 percent of the vote, which would force a one-on-one runoff later this summer. This race could tell us a lot about the importance of absolute loyalty to Trump in today’s GOP — even more than other primaries this cycle in which candidates have tried to out-Trump each other, since Roby’s anti-Trump stance was what inspired this primary in the first place.

Mississippi

Races to watch: none, really …
Polls close: 8 p.m. Eastern

The one race politicos are watching this year in Mississippi — the one for Thad Cochran’s former U.S. Senate seat, currently held by Cindy Hyde-Smith — won’t be on the ballot Tuesday.1 That leaves only the six-way Republican primary for the 3rd District to hold our attention, but no matter who wins, this open seat is unlikely to figure in November’s battle for House control. The 3rd District is 26 percentage points more Republican-leaning than the nation as a whole, according to our partisan lean metric.2

New Jersey

Races to watch: U.S. Senate; 2nd, 5th, 7th and 11th congressional districts
Polls close: 8 p.m. Eastern

With five of its 12 congressional districts expected to be competitive in November, New Jersey is one of a handful of blue states that alone have enough vulnerable Republican seats that they could decide which party controls the House next year. Considering that, Tuesday’s primaries in the Garden State are surprisingly muted. Thanks to the machinations of New Jersey’s powerful political parties, each notable primary already has a strong favorite. (In fact, in the 3rd Congressional District, which is 6 percentage points more Republican than the nation, there is only one candidate running on each side.) On Tuesday night, we’ll be watching mostly to see whether voters go along — or whether they throw a wrench in the parties’ best-laid November strategies.

After trying and failing to recruit state Sen. Jeff Van Drew to run in previous elections, Democratic bosses finally got him to jump into the race for the 2nd Congressional District shortly after its incumbent, Republican Frank LoBiondo, announced his retirement. Van Drew is seen as a formidable candidate, given his experience winning legislative elections in the reddest corner of the R+4 2nd District. But many Democrats believe Van Drew — who has voted against minimum-wage increases, some gun control measures and same-sex marriage — is too conservative. But none of Van Drew’s progressive challengers has much cash with which to spread their message, and they may wind up splitting the anti-establishment vote. On the flip side, Republicans lamented that the district was a “recruiting hole” as recently as April but have since talked up the candidacy of businessman Hirsh Singh. Their original read may have been the better one: Singh initially promised to spend $2 million of his own money on the race, but it’s since turned out that he has less than $120,000 in assets. His $127,000 in receipts is at least more than any of his three Republican rivals has raised, but it’s well behind Van Drew’s $632,000.

New Jersey’s 5th Congressional District is a rare opportunity for Republicans to knock off a Democratic incumbent — in this case, Josh Gottheimer, who represents an R+4 district. Steve Lonegan is the leading Republican candidate despite having lost campaigns for governor, Senate and the 3rd Congressional District (on the other end of the state) since 2009. Both he and primary opponent John McCann have self-funded their way to many a Fox News ad, but Lonegan has raised six times more thanks to a national network of conservative donors. Lonegan’s campaign has also released an internal poll of the primary claiming that he leads McCann 46 percent to 27 percent. It’s unclear who would be the better general-election candidate. Lonegan is known for his hardline conservative stances, while McCann used to work for a Republican-turned-Democratic sheriff. But McCann is more closely associated with Trump than Lonegan, who led an effort to deny Trump the nomination at the 2016 Republican National Convention.

In the 7th District, the winner of the Democratic primary (who will probably face incumbent Republican Rep. Leonard Lance in November) is likely to be Tom Malinowski, a former assistant secretary of state who won the “party line” (prime placement on the primary ballot) in all six of the district’s counties. Similar to the situation in the 2nd District, this has sparked discontent among progressive activists, who would prefer attorney Goutam Jois or social worker Peter Jacob. Jacob has the endorsement of a handful of Bernie Sanders-associated groups, but Jois has the money: He has raised a respectable $390,000. Malinowski ($1.2 million raised) is probably Democrats’ best bet in November, but the district is only R+3, so Jois could be competitive as well.

Both parties will hold five-way primaries for the open 11th District, which leans 5 points more toward Republicans than the nation. The front-runner on the Democratic side is Mikie Sherrill, a former federal prosecutor and Navy helicopter pilot with a $1.8 million war chest and endorsements from Joe Biden, Planned Parenthood and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Meanwhile, the National Republican Congressional Committee has lent support to three candidates: businessman Peter de Neufville, investment banker Antony Ghee and state Assemblyman Jay Webber. Webber’s superior fundraising ($402,000 for the cycle) both gives him a leg up on his primary opponents and likely makes him the strongest general-election candidate.

Finally, the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate is worth at least a small share of your attention. Incumbent Bob Menendez was “severely admonished” in April by the Senate Ethics Committee for accepting gifts from a wealthy friend, after a multiyear corruption scandal that ultimately ended with a mistrial and the government’s decision not to retry him. Although state Democrats have stuck by Menendez’s side as he faces re-election, his legal trouble has left him unpopular with New Jersey voters; in two recent polls, the senator had mediocre net favorability ratings3 of 6 percentage points and 29 points among Democratic voters. Menendez faces one challenger in the Democratic primary, Lisa McCormick, and her performance on Tuesday will tell us whether New Jerseyans want to move on from Menendez’s scandal — or from Menendez himself. Given New Jersey’s D+12 partisan lean, the winner will be heavily favored over the Republican nominee, who is likely to be wealthy former pharmaceutical executive Bob Hugin, in November.

Footnotes

  1. In that contest, all candidates, regardless of party, will face off on the same ballot in November, with a potential runoff a few weeks later.

  2. 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.

  3. The percentage of people who view him favorably minus the percentage who view him unfavorably.

Nathaniel Rakich is FiveThirtyEight’s elections analyst.

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