It’s runoff Tuesday! Alabama and Texas held their congressional primaries all the way back in March, but there were two competitive U.S. Senate elections (in addition to six House races worth watching) in which no candidate got a majority of the vote. The runoffs in those races finally take place today, after months of delay because of the coronavirus pandemic. In addition, Maine also holds its rescheduled primaries Tuesday.
Making a political comeback isn’t easy when you’ve infuriated your party’s boss. Just ask former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who is now an underdog in the race for his former U.S. Senate seat.
After resigning from this seat to join President Trump’s cabinet in 2017, Sessions earned Trump’s scorn by recusing himself from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged links between Russia and the Trump campaign in the 2016 election. Trump derided Sessions for months and then sent him packing after the 2018 midterm election. Sessions then decided to run for his old seat, but the president is backing former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville to block Sessions’s return to Washington. Trump’s endorsees have had mixed results in recent weeks, but Tuberville looks favored to advance and face vulnerable Democratic Sen. Doug Jones in November.
Tuberville and Sessions won a similar share of the vote in the March 3 primary — Tuberville narrowly led Sessions 33 percent to 32 percent — but the polls now show Tuberville with a clear advantage. The most recent survey, from Auburn University, found Tuberville ahead 47 percent to 31 percent, and two May surveys found similar results. A poll from Jones’s campaign and one from Republican pollster Cygnal put Tuberville ahead by more than 20 points, 54 percent to 32 percent and 55 percent to 32 percent, respectively. Even Sessions’s own polling put him behind: A late May poll conducted on behalf of his campaign put Tuberville up 6 points, 49 percent to 43 percent.
But recent revelations about Tuberville’s past financial dealings could open the door for a late Sessions recovery. About a decade ago, Tuberville co-founded a hedge fund that collapsed because of fraud and Tuberville played a substantial role in bringing in potential investors. It’s unclear, though, just how much voters may care about his past financial ventures.
Instead, Alabama Republicans will probably decide the race based on how close each candidate is to Trump. And Tuberville and his allies have been only too happy to make it clear whom Trump supports and opposes: Club for Growth Action is running ads highlighting Trump’s endorsement, and Tuberville’s campaign released an ad featuring an interview of Trump saying that if he could change one thing about his presidency, he wouldn’t have chosen Sessions to be attorney general. For his part, Sessions has tried to fight back. He’s hit Tuberville for not living in Alabama, and the former senator has even portrayed himself as an anti-establishment candidate. He’s also maintained he is loyal to Trump, although the president’s campaign seems disinclined to accept that support. In April, it sent a letter to Sessions demanding he cease using the president’s name in his Senate campaign because it might mislead voters into thinking Trump backs Sessions.
No matter who wins, though, the GOP nominee will probably be favored against Jones in November. The Auburn poll tested Jones against each Republican contender, and found Jones behind by 6 to 8 points. And with Trump likely to win Alabama by a sizable margin at the top of the ticket, that should boost the chances of whichever Republican wins today’s runoff.
Like the other two states voting today, the marquee race in Maine this year is for U.S. Senate. However, the Democratic primary to face vulnerable Republican Sen. Susan Collins is a mere formality: The party will almost certainly nominate state House Speaker Sara Gideon, whose campaign received the blessing of national Democrats over a year ago. But Gideon’s nomination is still a milestone worth noting: The winner of the primary will automatically receive more than $4 million raised by left-leaning groups in relation to Collins’s vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court in 2018. That should add more fuel to the fire of an already red-hot race, as Collins and Gideon have been virtually tied in most polls this year.
The Republican primary in northern Maine’s 2nd Congressional District also promises to be a notable race. After winning by only 1 percentage point (and by the grace of Maine’s unique ranked-choice voting system) in 2018, Democratic Rep. Jared Golden will once again be fighting for his electoral life here in November. And his opponent this time around will be either former gubernatorial press secretary Adrienne Bennett, former state Sen. Eric Brakey or former state Rep. Dale Crafts.
Brakey, who was the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate in 2018, has long looked like the front-runner: His $798,246 raised through June 24 was more than Crafts ($329,851) and Bennett ($174,021) combined. But in late June, a mysterious super PAC began sending campaign mail attacking the libertarian-leaning Brakey for his allegedly insufficient loyalty to Trump (he initially supported Sen. Rand Paul for president in 2016). Since then, Brakey has acted like an underdog, and a recent poll by SurveyUSA found that Crafts was the first choice of 37 percent of likely Republican primary voters, followed by Bennett with 25 percent and Brakey with 19 percent. (With ranked-choice voting, that wouldn’t be enough to win the nomination outright, but the poll also found that Crafts was the top second choice of Bennett and Brakey supporters.) Crafts, a more traditional conservative, has the endorsement of former Gov. Paul LePage plus an inspiring story to tell as the survivor of a 1983 accident who now uses a wheelchair.
Texas has enough runoffs to fill a 10-gallon hat, but the big statewide race is the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate between former Air Force helicopter pilot MJ Hegar and state Sen. Royce West. (The winner will advance to face three-term Republican Sen. John Cornyn in November.)
Hegar, who ran for the House in 2018, is the preferred choice of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, but West could very well win. In the crowded March 3 primary, the two candidates combined to win about 37 percent of the vote — Hegar’s 22 percent to West’s 15 percent — meaning there is a lot of unaligned support up for grabs today. Notably for West, most of the other major candidates endorsed him — including Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, who finished third with 13 percent — whereas none backed Hegar.
We have two recent polls of the runoff, and both show the race is very much up for grabs. A survey from The Dallas Morning News/UT-Tyler found Hegar up by 12 points, 32 percent to 20 percent, but with a huge number of undecideds, while a poll from Cornyn’s campaign found Hegar ahead by 4 points, 39 percent to West’s 35 percent. But Hegar has a big fundraising edge: As of June 24, she had raised about $6.5 million to West’s $1.8 million, and she had about 10 times as much in her campaign war chest — $1.6 million to $160,000. Hegar’s campaign and her allies at the DSCC and Emily’s List allocated about $2 million for ads in the final week of the campaign, giving her around an 85-to-1 spending advantage over West, according to calculations by the Texas Tribune.
But West’s campaign may be on the upswing because of the heightened focus on race and policing after George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police in May. West, who is African American, recently said the “stars have aligned” for his campaign because of his focus on criminal justice reform in the state legislature. He has also hit Hegar for a past donation to Cornyn and for voting in the 2016 Republican presidential primary (Hegar says she cast a protest vote for Carly Fiorina against Trump). For her part, Hegar has run an ad opposing family separation at the border and systemic racism. She’s also cast West as a political insider who’s worked on behalf of his personal self-interest rather than for his constituents.
Regardless of who wins, though, the nominee will start out as an underdog against Cornyn. But with Joe Biden running neck-and-neck with Trump in the Lone Star State, the Senate race could be close, too.
There are also runoffs in four competitive House races:
- 10th District Democratic runoff: In a familiar theme for 2020 primaries, this race has revolved around electability. Physician Pritesh Gandhi has faulted civil-rights lawyer Mike Siegel for losing to GOP Rep. Michael McCaul here by 4 points in 2018, even as former Rep. Beto O’Rourke was carrying this Austin-to-Houston district in the Senate race. Siegel, who is endorsed by Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, supports progressive policies like the Green New Deal and Medicare for All, while Gandhi’s more cautious views align more with Joe Biden’s. Siegel outpaced Gandhi 44 percent to 33 percent in the first round, but Gandhi spent more during the pre-runoff disclosure period (April 1 through June 24), $189,079 to $154,691, and has been the beneficiary of six mailers and a TV ad from 314 Action, an outside group that supports scientists running for office.
- 22nd District Republican runoff: In the March primary for this Republican-held open seat in suburban Houston, Fort Bend County Sheriff Troy Nehls finished well ahead of businesswoman Kathaleen Wall (40 percent to 19 percent). But Wall has deployed her tremendous financial advantage (she’s given or loaned almost $7.5 million to her own campaign) to smear Nehls for not taking sex trafficking seriously as sheriff, with some provocative TV ads featuring a survivor and her parents. Nehls has said he simply doesn’t have enough money for ads of his own, so he’ll have to hope his March supporters stay loyal.
- 23rd District Republican runoff: This Republican-held open seat along the Texas-Mexico border is seen as one of Democrats’ best pickup opportunities in the entire nation, but GOP honchos like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy believe they have a formidable candidate in former Navy cryptologist Tony Gonzales. That said, not every Republican is on board. On June 30, Sen. Ted Cruz endorsed Gonzales’s runoff opponent, Air Force veteran and businessman Raul Reyes, who many Republicans fear is unelectable due to his hardline conservative views. In response, Trump weighed in on Gonzales’s behalf (reportedly at McCarthy’s urging), pitting the two old rivals against each other once again. This time, it could go either way, too: Gonzales only narrowly outpolled Reyes in the first round, 28 percent to 23 percent, and although he significantly outspent him in the pre-runoff period, $207,226 to $101,131, that doesn’t account for the (at least) $109,788 Cruz is spending on a TV ad on Reyes’s behalf.
- 24th District Democratic runoff: This suburban Dallas-Fort Worth seat is yet another GOP-held open seat Democrats are trying to flip. With few policy differences between the Democratic candidates — retired Air Force Colonel Kim Olson and former Carrollton-Farmers Branch school board member Candace Valenzuela — the runoff has turned on their identities and experience. Valenzuela, a 36-year-old who would be the first Black Latina to serve in Congress, represents the new generation of Democratic politicians. She has the support of several former presidential candidates, including Warren and Julián Castro, as well as all three components of the Congressional Tri-Caucus: the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (the first 2020 candidate to achieve that hat trick). Meanwhile, Olson touts her extensive resume, first as one of the first female fighter pilots and then as human-resources director of the Dallas school district — though she’s come under fire for the district’s budget deficit and firing of hundreds of teachers (problems that predated her tenure). Although Olson outstripped Valenzuela 41 percent to 30 percent in the first round of voting, a recent poll sponsored by one of Valenzuela’s endorsers found the reverse — Valenzuela 52 percent, Olson 37 percent — after a coalition of outside groups dropped “high six figures” on pro-Valenzuela mail, television and digital advertising.
A couple of safe Republican seats also have some intriguing runoffs, with the winner in each more or less guaranteed to head to the House. Here’s what’s happening in those two races:
- 13th District Republican runoff: Lobbyist Josh Winegarner finished well ahead of former White House physician Ronny Jackson in the March 3 primary, 39 percent to 20 percent. Winegarner might seem like a favorite, given his first-round edge and his endorsement from long-time Rep. Mac Thornberry, whose retirement opened up this North Texas seat. However, Jackson has Trump’s backing, as well as the endorsement of Chris Ekstrom, who finished third in the primary with 15 percent. Jackson has also outraised Winegarner since the runoff period began and has twice as much outside financial support as Winegarner. Plus, the only surveys of the runoff show Jackson ahead, though they both come from groups allied with Jackson — the Club for Growth and Miles for Greatness Fund — but all in all, this race could go either way.
- 17th District Republican runoff: Jeff isn’t the only Sessions trying to mount a political comeback today. Former Rep. Pete Sessions, who lost his 2018 reelection bid in Texas’s 32nd Congressional District, shifted his political aspirations 100 miles to the south to run in the 17th District, where his childhood home of Waco is located. However, retiring GOP Rep. Bill Flores has opposed Sessions’s attempt to take over his seat, instead backing businesswoman Renee Swann in the runoff. On March 3, Sessions garnered 32 percent to Swann’s 19 percent in a crowded primary, and he’s since gotten the endorsement of third-place finisher George Hindman, who was just behind Swann with 18 percent. But Swann’s attacks on Sessions’s carpetbagging, as well as his use of campaign funds to pay legal bills, could be enough for her to beat him today.
As usual, don’t be surprised if we don’t get full results tonight. All three states have seen an increase in the use of mail ballots, which take longer to count. That said, relatively low turnout could make it easier for Alabama to report most of its votes on election night, and most Texans may still decide to vote in person since the state declined to allow the pandemic as a valid excuse to vote absentee. Maine’s results will likely take the longest, due to the likelihood that voters’ second or third choices on their ranked-choice ballots will decide the winner.
CLARIFICATION (July 14, 2020, 11:32 a.m.): This story has been updated to reflect the fact that while left-leaning groups raised money because of Sen. Collins’s vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, most of this money was raised before the confirmation vote took place. To date, the groups have raised more than $4.1 million.