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

Because the election gods know how to build drama, the later a state’s polls close on Tuesday night, the more exciting its primaries seem to be. While the primaries profiled in Part I of this week’s election preview are somewhat tame, things start to get interesting at 9 p.m. Eastern, really heat up at 10 p.m. and finally culminate with California at 11 p.m. (California is the subject of Part III in this series).

South Dakota

Races to watch: U.S. House; governor
Polls close: 8 p.m. Eastern in the eastern half of the state, 9 p.m. Eastern in the western half

South Dakota presents us with the first true toss-up race of the day: the GOP primary for governor. It’s been a knock-down, drag-out battle between two seasoned South Dakota politicians — one working in D.C. (Rep. Kristi Noem) and one working in Pierre (Attorney General Marty Jackley) — and the race has played out along those lines. Noem is trying to buck a trend this year of Republican House members losing primary bids for higher office. Will the stink of the swamp halt Noem’s ambitions as well? According to a Mason-Dixon poll, she led Jackley just 45 percent to 44 percent in late May. The winner will square off with Democrat Billie Sutton, who has $879,000 in the bank but faces steep odds in this R+29 state.1

Noem’s U.S. House seat is also up for grabs. According to the lone poll of the race, Dusty Johnson leads Secretary of State Shantel Krebs 41 percent to 23 percent, with state Rep. Neal Tapio in third with 13 percent. Johnson has the support of Gov. Dennis Daugaard, for whom Johnson served as chief of staff, while Krebs and especially Tapio — who has questioned Muslims’ right to religious freedom — have touted their allegiance to President Trump. Krebs has been the target of postcards associated with the centrist group No Labels, which met with Johnson last year. While Republicans are likely to hold this seat regardless, the winner will determine whether there is one more pragmatist or firebrand in the Republican caucus.

New Mexico

Races to watch: 1st and 2nd congressional districts; governor
Polls close: 9 p.m. Eastern

The Democratic primary in New Mexico’s open 1st Congressional District has emerged as a potentially history-making proxy war. Polling shows a three-way race between Debra Haaland, Antoinette Sedillo Lopez and Damon Martinez. No Labels — a centrist group that intervened in favor of conservative Democrats in at least two Democratic primaries earlier this cycle — has spent money on behalf of Martinez, one of the U.S. attorneys fired by Trump last year, despite the fact that he supports single-payer health care. A more outwardly liberal candidate should still be able to win this D+14 district in November, but some Democrats fear that Sedillo Lopez and Haaland, both progressive and nonwhite women (Haaland would be the first Native American woman elected to Congress), will wind up splitting the non-Martinez primary vote.

In the 2nd District, the fight is on the Republican side. Former Hobbs Mayor Monty Newman leads the money race with $705,000 raised, but state Rep. Yvette Herrell seems to have captured the hearts of conservative activists by throwing them lots of red meat on the campaign trail.2 Democratic forces have coalesced around water attorney Xochitl Torres Small, and in a big Democratic wave, she would have a fighting chance in this R+12 district, particularly if the GOP nominates one of the farther-right candidates in the race, who may be somewhat out of step with the electorate.

The 1st and 2nd districts are open because their occupants are both running for governor — and they’re very likely to lock horns in November. Republican Rep. Steve Pearce faces no primary opposition, and Democratic Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham is way ahead of state Sen. Joe Cervantes and former media executive Joe Apodaca in polls of the Democratic contest. New Mexico currently has a Republican chief executive, but it is a Democratic-leaning state overall (D+6), so this is an excellent opportunity for Democrats to pick up a governorship.


Races to watch: 1st and 3rd congressional districts; governor
Polls close: 10 p.m. Eastern

Democrats have two solid takeover opportunities in a pair of Iowa districts that went for Barack Obama in 2012 but then Trump in 2016. In the 1st District, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Emily’s List and several Iowa labor unions are backing state Rep. Abby Finkenauer in the Democratic primary, and she looks like the front-runner: She has raised three times as much money (nearly $1.3 million) as her three Democratic opponents combined, and women have done very well in Democratic primaries so far this cycle. Thomas Heckroth, a former aide to ex-Sen. Tom Harkin, looks like her main competition, although given their similar ages3 and progressive platforms, he may have trouble standing out. Democratic honchos have clearly settled on Finkenauer, who has cultivated a working-class image, as their best bet to beat Rep. Rod Blum in this R+2 district.

On the other hand, the Democratic primary in the 3rd District is wide open. In a Selzer & Co. poll from mid-May, just 1 percentage point separated well-known high school coach Eddie Mauro and community activist Cindy Axne. Bernie Sanders has stumped for his former Iowa campaign manager, Pete D’Alessandro, but so far it’s only translated to third place in polls — maybe because all the candidates espouse the same progressive platform. A populist message may or may not be a general-election impediment in a place like Iowa, but at R+4, the 3rd District will be a slightly tougher climb for Democrats than the 1st.

Democrats also harbor ambitions of denying Republican Kim Reynolds, who assumed office in 2017 after Terry Branstad was named ambassador to China, her first full term as governor. Six Democrats will appear on the primary ballot, raising the possibility that the race won’t be decided on Tuesday; in Iowa, if a candidate fails to get 35 percent of the primary vote, the nominee is chosen by a party convention. According to Selzer, businessman Fred Hubbell led the pack in May with 31 percent, followed by state Sen. Nate Boulton with 20 percent and nurses’ union leader Cathy Glasson with 13 percent. But the race was turned on its head just a few days after the poll was released when Boulton was accused of sexually touching three women without their consent and dropped out of the race. Boulton had been buoyed by the strong support of organized labor, and other union-friendly candidates like Glasson and John Norris have scrambled to inherit his voters. However, it may be Hubbell with the most to gain, as the Selzer poll suggested that he may have been the second choice of most Boulton voters, and many Boulton endorsers have switched to Hubbell in the campaign’s waning days. With his personal wealth and famous family name (the Iowa governor’s mansion used to be the Hubbell family mansion), Hubbell is undoubtedly Democrats’ strongest candidate. Republicans are likely rooting for Glasson, whom they see as too far left for a state that is 8 points more Republican-leaning than the nation.


Races to watch: U.S. Senate; U.S. House
Polls close: 10 p.m. Eastern

Democrat Jon Tester is a top GOP target in this R+21 state, and four Republicans want to be the one to evict him from the U.S. Senate. State Auditor Matt Rosendale has both the Republican establishment and Trumpworld in his corner, and outside groups have spent more than $1.8 million in service of his campaign. However, his “outsider” campaign is in danger of being taken too literally; opponents like former judge Russ Fagg have hammered Rosendale for having lived most of his life in Maryland as well as for attracting so much out-of-state financial support. (Fagg has in turn drawn fire from the Club for Growth and other pro-Rosendale groups, suggesting they see him as the main threat to Rosendale.) Setting aside outside money, Troy Downing, the CEO of a California-based storage company, has spent the most money of any candidate (most of it his own). He has lashed himself to Trump so tightly that he even touted an endorsement from former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, but Downing faces criminal charges for allegedly buying resident-only hunting and fishing licenses when he lived out of state.

Conversely, Republican Greg Gianforte, Montana’s lone U.S. House member, has been a Democratic target ever since he won a 2017 special election by 6 points after body-slamming a reporter. Three Democrats have the resources to run serious campaigns, and their primary is the latest skirmish in the electability-vs.-ideology debate. Attorney John Heenan styles himself a proud populist in the tradition of both Sanders (who won Montana’s 2016 Democratic primary) and Trump (who carried the state in the general election) and supports universal health care. Former land-trust director Grant Kier advocates for an end to partisan vitriol and is more cautious on the issues as well. Former state Rep. Kathleen Williams seems to sit between the two — for example, she supports Medicare for everyone … over age 55. Kier leads the money race; if he can translate that into a victory in the actual race, it will be good news for Democrats in November.


  1. According to FiveThirtyEight partisan lean, defined as 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. A third candidate, Gavin Clarkson, a former Trump appointee to the Interior Department who resigned under scrutiny for loans he had handed out, sits on the edge of relevance with $157,000 raised.

  3. Heckroth is 34, while Finkenauer, at age 29, would become the youngest woman ever elected to Congress.

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