Between a suddenly competitive Senate race in Kentucky and the possible ouster of four entrenched incumbents in New York, Tuesday’s primary elections feature the largest-scale confrontation yet between the Democratic establishment and the party’s progressive wing. In New York especially, the primaries will test the political muscle of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has thrown her weight behind several progressives running for Congress and state legislature.
In addition, four other states (Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia) will hold their primaries or primary runoffs, but there are no special races of note that we’ll be watching closely. Regardless, don’t wait up late tonight for results; because the coronavirus has forced most states to conduct elections predominantly by absentee ballot, it could take more than a week to learn who won the day’s biggest races. New York won’t start counting its absentee ballots until June 30, and at least a third of Kentucky counties, including the two biggest, will not release any results until that date either.
The highest contested office on the ballot today is the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate in the Bluegrass State. For months, Amy McGrath, a former Marine who gained national attention for her strong but unsuccessful House run in 2018, seemed like a shoo-in for the Democratic nomination to take on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Helped by her own national following, an intense Democratic desire to defeat McConnell and the backing of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, McGrath raised massive sums of money for the race — $41.1 million as of June 3, even more than McConnell. But locally, there were some signs of resistance to McGrath. A few Democrats in Kentucky’s state legislature have backed state Rep. Charles Booker, while some progressive activists support farmer and former Marine Mike Broihier.
Recently, however, Booker — who would be Kentucky’s first Black senator — has gained attention for speaking out about racial inequality at local protests against police violence, which have carried special meaning in Louisville as the hometown of Breonna Taylor, a young Black woman whom police shot and killed at her home in March. Booker’s leadership impressed the state’s two biggest newspapers, which endorsed him, and even galvanized progressives nationally: Ocasio-Cortez, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren endorsed Booker in the final weeks of the race. Now, polls show a tight race between McGrath and Booker, and it’s not clear which candidate will come out ahead. Either way, though, McConnell will remain a heavy favorite in November; he leads both McGrath and Booker by double digits in hypothetical matchups.
The Empire State has 10 House races we’re watching, including eight matchups between establishment and insurgent candidates and five incumbents who could theoretically lose their safe seats.
The most direct clash between the two wings of the party is in the 16th District, where 16-term Rep. Eliot Engel is being challenged by former middle school principal Jamaal Bowman. Unlike some other Democrats who have faced progressive primary challenges this year, Engel is pretty liberal (according to DW-Nominate, he’s more liberal than 64 percent of the current House Democratic Caucus), and he has the support of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Gov. Andrew Cuomo. However, Engel has been criticized for neglecting his district; he rode out the first two months of the pandemic in Washington, D.C., even as his Bronx- and Westchester County-based district became a coronavirus hotspot, and a hot mic caught him pleading to speak at a press conference about the anti-police-violence protests by saying, “if I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care.”
FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast: Progressives challenge the Democratic establishment
That gaffe, plus another progressive challenger dropping out and endorsing Bowman, gave Bowman momentum; the Justice Democrats and the Working Families Party had been backing Bowman for months, but he also now has the support of Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders and The New York Times editorial board. Bowman’s campaign says it also raised more than $600,000 from June 1-12, although Engel had spent more and had more cash on hand as of June 3. And a Data for Progress poll conducted for Bowman gave the challenger a surprisingly wide 10-point lead, although Engel’s campaign claims that its internal polls show Engel ahead.
A few of New York City’s other incumbents also face notable challenges, though a lack of polling means it’s hard to gauge how serious they are.
- In the Brooklyn-based 9th District, community organizer Adem Bunkeddeko is back for a rematch with seven-term Rep. Yvette Clarke after losing to her just 53 percent to 47 percent in the 2018 Democratic primary. Ideologically, both Clarke and Bunkeddeko are staunch progressives, so this contest is more about approach — for instance, Clarke is willing to take PAC money; Bunkeddeko is not. The addition of two new candidates this year — one progressive, one conservative aiming to appeal to the district’s Orthodox Jewish community — adds even more unpredictability.
- In the tri-borough (Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens) 12th District, 14-term Rep. Carolyn Maloney also confronts a familiar face: attorney Suraj Patel, who lost to Maloney 60 percent to 40 percent in 2018. However, democratic socialists Lauren Ashcraft and Peter Harrison are also running this year, threatening to split the anti-incumbent vote. As of June 3, Maloney, an ideologically median Democrat and chair of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, had outspent her three challengers combined, $2.0 million to $754,186.
- In the 10th District, which zigzags across Manhattan and Brooklyn, Rep. Jerrold Nadler faces two challengers: former New York Deputy Secretary of Economic Development Lindsey Boylan and former Andrew Yang staffer Jonathan Herzog. Although Nadler, who played a starring role in President Trump’s impeachment proceedings as chair of the House Judiciary Committee, has a pretty progressive voting record, Boylan and Herzog have argued he is all bark and no bite. As of June 3, Boylan had spent $749,902, almost as much as Nadler’s $1.1 million. That said, in Nadler’s nearly 30 years as a congressman, he has never come close to losing renomination, so it might be an uphill battle for Boylan or Herzog to dethrone him.
- Finally, there’s one place anti-establishment forces are playing defense: Ocasio-Cortez’s 14th District in Queens and the Bronx. Former CNBC anchor Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, a fiscal conservative, says “AOC is MIA” in the district and blames her for scuttling Amazon’s plan to build a second headquarters in New York City. With the help of deep-pocketed business executives and more than a few Republicans, Caruso-Cabrera has raised an impressive $2.0 million in an effort to unseat the first-term incumbent. Of course, Ocasio-Cortez has raised a whopping $10.5 million, so it seems as if the 14th is still safely Ocasio-Cortez’s.
In two other dark-blue open seats, many liberals are fighting to prevent the nomination from going to someone who might actually vote with Republicans. In the South Bronx 15th District, New York City Council Member Rubén Díaz, Sr., is a conservative Democrat who opposes abortion, has claimed that city government is “controlled by the homosexual community” and is openly considering a vote for Trump this fall. But as the patriarch of a Bronx political dynasty — he represented the area in the state Senate for 15 years, and his son is now borough president — Díaz has enough of a base to be a front-runner in the fractured, 12-candidate field.
Liberals are split on their preferred alternative: Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders endorsed affordable-housing activist Samelys López, while the Black political establishment has rallied around Assemblyman Michael Blake. And symbolic of Democrats’ indecision, the political arm of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus is backing New York City Council Member Ritchie Torres, but the caucus’s chair, Rep. Joaquin Castro, has endorsed former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. Torres, the Bronx’s first openly LGBT elected official, may be the candidate best positioned to beat Díaz. As of June 3, he had spent the most money in the race, at $856,531 (although Blake was not far behind at $705,648). And a Data for Progress poll in May found Díaz with 22 percent, Torres with 20 percent and no other candidate above 6 percent. However, 34 percent of likely voters were still undecided.
[Related: Our 2020 National Polling Averages]
Up the Hudson River, in the suburban 17th District, state Sen. David Carlucci is likewise a top contender for the Democratic nod — despite his seven years as a member of the Independent Democratic Conference, a breakaway group of Democrats who handed control of the state Senate to Republicans. But after multiple polls showed Carlucci in strong position, progressives (including Ocasio-Cortez) united behind attorney Mondaire Jones, and Jones took 25 percent to Carlucci’s 11 percent in a more recent Public Policy Polling survey. However, at 14 percent each in the poll, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Evelyn Farkas and former Assistant U.S. Attorney Adam Schleifer are still in the hunt as well. Schleifer in particular has one big advantage: millions of dollars in pharmaceutical stock. He has invested almost $4 million of his own money in his campaign, allowing him to spend four times more than any other candidate.
All the seats above will almost certainly remain in Democratic hands this fall no matter who wins the primary. But upstate, in the Syracuse-based 24th District, Democrats’ choice of nominee could affect their chances against vulnerable GOP Rep. John Katko. The two main Democratic candidates, professor Dana Balter and Navy veteran Francis Conole, disagree on only a few things: health care (Balter supports Medicare for All, Conole a public option) and who is more electable. (As the Democrats’ previous nominee, Balter lost to Katko by 5 points in 2018, even though the district had voted for Clinton by nearly 4 points two years earlier. However, that was a stronger performance than Katko’s 2016 opponent, even after adjusting for the national environment.) As of June 3, the two had spent similar sums of money (around $700,000), but Balter’s name recognition may carry the day: According to a GBAO Strategies poll for her campaign, she led 60 percent to 31 percent as of early June.
The parties will also decide their nominees in four other New York swing seats: the 1st, 2nd, 11th and 22nd. Of these, only the Democratic primary in the 1st District, which covers eastern Long Island, is in any real doubt. The initial front-runner seemed to be businessman Perry Gershon, who lost to GOP Rep. Lee Zeldin here by 4 points in 2018. But self-funding chemistry professor Nancy Goroff outspent him $1.6 million to $979,063, and as of late May Goroff’s internal polling showed the two roughly tied. Suffolk County Legislator Bridget Fleming then responded with her own internal poll giving herself and Goroff 29 percent each, with Gershon at 22 percent. Fleming spent just $598,608 but earned a notable endorsement from progressive actor Cynthia Nixon.
If you’ve read this far, you might also be interested in one non-primary election happening Tuesday. Nine months after ex-Rep. Chris Collins resigned and pleaded guilty to insider trading, New York’s 27th District is finally holding a special election to replace him. The GOP tapped state Sen. Chris Jacobs as its nominee in January, while Democrats are fielding former Grand Island Town Supervisor Nate McMurray, who came within 1,088 votes of unseating Collins in 2018. However, Jacobs is a far less damaged candidate than Collins was, and Trump carried this Western New York seat by 24 points. Therefore, Jacobs is a heavy favorite to win, but the exact margin will be worth watching as a barometer of the national mood. So far this cycle, despite wide Democratic leads in presidential and congressional generic ballot polls, special-election results have not indicated a consistent Democratic overperformance.