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What’s At Stake In The First Big Primary Day Of 2018

Will a new political dynasty be born? Will a man not quite a year removed from prison become the GOP’s candidate for Senate? Will Dennis Kucinich finally win a nomination — 14 years after his first quixotic presidential bid?

These things could all happen Tuesday, primary day in the great states of Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio and West Virginia. As opposed to recent special election days, when the entire political world turned its eyes to a single district, we’ll be dividing our attention among several key contests as the results come in. There are lots of weird, interesting races, but the most significant takeaway will be whether the Democratic and Republican parties are nominating strong candidates for the fall. Want to follow along? Read up on the races we’ll be watching below, then join us Tuesday night for our live blog.

Indiana

Races to watch: U.S. Senate; 6th Congressional District
Poll closings: most at 6 p.m. Eastern, the rest at 7 p.m.

The U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Joe Donnelly is one of Republicans’ best pickup opportunities in the country in 2018, so it’s of little surprise that the GOP nomination in this race is so coveted. Indiana is solidly red — 19 percentage points more Republican-leaning than the nation overall, according to FiveThirtyEight’s partisan lean metric.1 Two U.S. representatives are giving up safe House seats to gun for it — and in the end, they might both miss out.

Reps. Luke Messer and Todd Rokita have known each other since they were students together at the small, all-men’s Wabash College. They jumped into local GOP politics at roughly the same time and quickly became rivals: Messer became the golden boy of the Republican establishment in the Indiana General Assembly and U.S. Congress, while Rokita agitated them as secretary of state and a tea party congressman. This year, hostilities have spilled out into the open. Rokita has labeled his opponent “Missing Messer” in the wake of reports that Messer no longer lives in the state. In turn, Messer has blamed “Lyin’ Todd” for spreading a story raising questions about his wife’s employment. Meanwhile, Rokita’s campaign has had to parry stories about his dictatorial management style, including an embarrassing memo about chauffeuring the congressman that was supposedly leaked by — who else? — the Messer campaign.

Their bickering has created an opening for a third candidate: former state Rep. Mike Braun. Seeded by more than $5.4 million from his own pocket, the wealthy businessman has spent almost as much as Messer and Rokita combined, much of it on ads that emphasize Messer and Rokita’s interchangeability as career politicians. The fact that Messer and Rokita have trained their fire at Braun in recent debates suggests they think his strategy is working; the only poll of the primary agrees that he’s the front-runner, although 45 percent of voters were still undecided.

Party loyalty has emerged as the main issue in the race. Both Messer and Rokita have hammered Braun for his history of voting in Democratic primaries through 2008. (He was elected to the legislature as a Republican in 2014.) While all three have rushed to tie themselves to President Trump, Rokita has gone to the most extreme lengths: He brings a cardboard cutout of Trump to campaign rallies and donned a “Make America Great Again” hat in one memorable ad. Rokita may even have overdone it: Trump’s re-election campaign has publicly rebuked him for lawn signs that imply the president has endorsed him, though he has not.

Regardless of whoever emerges with the nomination, the real winner of the Republican primary could be Donnelly, whose campaign will have ample opposition research to deploy no matter whom it faces. Any of the three Republicans would likely emerge from the primary a weakened — and less wealthy — candidate for the general, but make no mistake: This will be a competitive race regardless.

The Hoosier State also features a few U.S. House primaries to keep an eye on. Before Messer occupied Indiana’s 6th Congressional District (partisan lean of R+39, or 39 points more Republican-leaning than the nation), it was represented by none other than Mike Pence. With Messer moving on to (he hopes) greener pastures, the vice president’s older brother, Greg Pence, is looking to return the seat to the family. Pence is the unsurprising front-runner in his Republican primary thanks to the $1.2 million he has raised with the help of his powerful brother and other GOP bigwigs; half of his fundraising haul has come from out of state. Pence’s main competition in the primary appears to be businessman Jonathan Lamb, who has lent his campaign $800,000. The seat is solidly Republican — either Pence or Lamb would likely be a heavy favorite in the general election over the winner of a crowded Democratic field.

North Carolina

Races to watch: 2nd, 3rd, 9th and 13th congressional districts
Polls close: 7:30 p.m. Eastern

Without a single statewide office on the ballot this week, the House of Representatives is where the action is for the Tar Heel State. National Democrats have telegraphed their optimism at picking up North Carolina’s 9th and 13th congressional districts by adding Marine/solar-energy entrepreneur Dan McCready and philanthropist/lawyer Kathy Manning to their “Red to Blue” program. Both, however, will first need to get past token primary opposition. These are both red districts, but not quite so red as to be safe if there’s a Democratic wave: The 9th has a partisan lean of R+14; the 13th is R+11. That makes both more Democratic-friendly than the settings of every federal special election we’ve had so far in the Trump era save one.

The 9th District is more interesting on the Republican side. In 2016, incumbent Rep. Robert Pittenger defeated local pastor Mark Harris in the GOP primary of this redrawn district by just 134 votes. This year, Harris is back for a rematch, but polling indicates that it won’t be as close. Pittenger has a wide financial advantage, has had two years to get to know his new district and no longer faces the ethics investigation that haunted him in 2016. But if Harris wins, the GOP loses the advantage of incumbency in this district, which could help Democrats in the fall.

Political observers are more pessimistic about Democratic chances in the Raleigh-area 2nd Congressional District (R+13), where none of the three Democratic candidates has yet caught fire with donors. The primary is likely to come down to entrepreneur Ken Romley’s checkbook (he has used $340,000 in self-funding to air the only TV ads of the primary) vs. former state Rep. Linda Coleman’s name recognition (she unsuccessfully ran for lieutenant governor in 2012 and 2016). My guess: National Democrats would probably prefer to ride into battle in November with Romley than Coleman.

Finally, in the 3rd District (R+25), Rep. Walter Jones has long given Republican leadership headaches, breaking from his party on such issues as the Iraq War and Russian electoral interference. His independent streak has earned him a serious primary challenge this year from lobbyist and Craven County Commissioner Scott Dacey, who has aired ads accusing Jones of voting with Nancy Pelosi and accepting money from George Soros. Dacey has outraised Jones $378,000 to $351,000, and a Civitas poll from March gave Jones just a 9-point lead, so this one is worth watching. This seat is a guaranteed hold for Republicans either way (no Democrats filed to run), but if Jones were to keep the seat, he could affect the GOP’s ability to govern and shrink the margin for error in the Republican caucus should the GOP retain the House by just a couple of seats.

Ohio

Races to watch: governor; Issue 1; U.S. Senate; 12th and 16th congressional districts
Polls close: 7:30 p.m Eastern

With Republican Gov. John Kasich term-limited out of office (and perhaps with his eye on bigger and better things), both parties have suspenseful primaries in the Ohio governor’s race. A few months ago, it looked like Attorney General Mike DeWine had the Republican nomination locked up, but Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor has whittled a 40-point polling lead down to 17 points since loaning her campaign $3 million in January. She has deployed the funds on an onslaught of TV ads attacking “D.C. DeWine” as insufficiently conservative. DeWine responded with a $4.7 million media broadside of his own: His campaign has tarred Taylor as a “phony conservative,” called her “unfit, unqualified” and even tweeted “#LockHerUp” over her alleged misuse of a state airplane. The race to the right has gone so far that Taylor has taken to disavowing the moderate Kasich administration (in which she serves) and reportedly claimed that Kasich had endorsed DeWine. (Taylor denies making the claim, and Kasich has reaffirmed his endorsement of Taylor.)

The Democratic primary also features a well-funded front-runner and a scrappy ideologue, and both candidates’ names are familiar to observers of national Democratic politics. The favorite is former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray, fresh off a contentious stint as director of the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The underdog is former U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich — yes, the same Dennis Kucinich who ran for president in both 2004 and 2008 touting a far-left policy platform that now looks ahead of its time.

The 2018 campaign has split progressives: Kucinich enjoys the endorsement of Bernie Sanders-affiliated Our Revolution, while Cordray has campaigned with liberal lion Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Kucinich has seized on Cordray’s opposition to an assault-weapons ban and the “A” rating he received from the NRA in 2010, but Kucinich has also weathered a storm of his own after accepting a speaking fee from a group supportive of bellicose Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The latest poll gives Cordray a healthy 15-point lead over Kucinich, but with more than half of respondents undecided and four other Democrats, including state Sen. Joe Schiavoni and former Ohio Supreme Court Justice Bill O’Neill, on the ballot, there’s still a lot of uncertainty. The outcome of this primary will be very important to Democrats’ chances of a November pickup in this reddening (R+8) state. Although Cordray was widely seen as Democrats’ strongest recruit, a Kucinich win could take this race off the table entirely.

Ohioans will also pass judgment on gerrymandering on Tuesday with Issue 1, a ballot measure that overhauls Ohio’s congressional redistricting process. The proposed amendment to the state constitution would require districts to be compact, limit the number of counties split between districts and give the minority party more leverage in passing a new map. Issue 1 has garnered support from both Democrats and Republicans, so it hasn’t generated much campaign activity. But some reformers have complained that it doesn’t go far enough. For example, if a redistricting plan fails to pass with minority-party support, then the majority party can still unilaterally pass its own map (although it would expire after four years rather than the usual 10). Polls suggest the measure will pass easily.

Speaking of Congress, Ohio could play host to the next tight special election, in its 12th Congressional District (R+14), whose primary is Tuesday (along with all of Ohio’s regularly scheduled House primaries). Former Rep. Pat Tiberi, who resigned to lead a local business group, has spent handsomely to promote his chosen successor, state Sen. Troy Balderson, in the GOP primary. But insurgent Republicans have other ideas. House Freedom Caucus co-founder Jim Jordan supports diehard Trump follower Melanie Leneghan, who business-friendly Republicans worry could cost them the general election in this well-off, well-educated district. The conflict has sparked a $1.3 million TV ad war that has been joined by several super PACs. Veteran and economist Tim Kane is also on the air with his message eschewing career politicians, and state Sen. Kevin Bacon could also cause tremors with his high name recognition. But private polling agrees Balderson and Leneghan are one and two for now.

The Democratic primary has been much quieter. Franklin County Recorder Danny O’Connor is the front-runner and establishment favorite in a place where the local party’s support still carries tangible material benefits. Former Franklin County Sheriff Zach Scott, a moderate, has a familiar name from running in two high-profile races in recent years (on the other hand, he lost them both), but the local party is not a fan. Also keep an eye on Indivisible activist John Russell, who has grassroots appeal but has also snagged some high-profile endorsers.

Ohio’s other open House seat is in the 16th Congressional District (R+17), where a fight similar to the one in the 12th is playing out on the Republican side. Anthony Gonzalez, who is a former Ohio State football star and briefly played in the NFL, has collected $1.1 million in contributions from the likes of House GOP leadership and old co-worker Peyton Manning. But Freedom Caucus founder Jordan has planted a flag in this district too, endorsing firebrand state Rep. Christina Hagan. Hagan has embraced Trump tightly — and, in turn, Trump associates like Anthony Scaramucci and Sebastian Gorka have embraced her — but she has raised less than $400,000 for the cycle. Meanwhile, Democrats, who have an outside shot at winning this seat in November, will choose between six candidates, with veteran and clean-energy researcher Grant Goodrich perhaps a modest favorite.

Taken together, the 12th and 16th districts are perhaps Tuesday’s clearest examples of places where Republican voters will have to weigh ideological fealty (who’s the most conservative?) against electability (who has the best chance of winning the general election?). Democrats, rightly or wrongly, are likely rooting for the more extreme, Jordan-backed candidates.

Finally, Ohio’s 1st, 7th, 10th, 14th and 15th congressional districts — all Republican-held — will be races to watch in the fall, but there’s not much suspense about which Democrat will win their primaries. It’s a similar story in Ohio’s U.S. Senate race. Armed with Trump’s endorsement, U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci is the clear favorite in the Republican primary and is expected to give Democratic incumbent Sherrod Brown a tough race in the fall. However, the nearly $2 million that investment banker Mike Gibbons has spent in the campaign could put a dent in Renacci’s margin. An April poll gave Renacci 21 percent, Gibbons 7 percent and “undecided” 65 percent.

West Virginia

Races to watch: U.S. Senate; 3rd Congressional District
Polls close: 7:30 p.m. Eastern

The marquee race in West Virginia — and maybe in all four states — is the Republican primary for U.S. Senate, another golden GOP pickup opportunity. FiveThirtyEight’s Clare Malone has penned an in-depth look at the unusual three-way race, so we won’t rehash it for you here.

Meanwhile, don’t let the primaries in West Virginia’s open 3rd Congressional District (R+48) fly under your radar. Although Trump carried the district by a whopping 49 points in 2016, it encompasses ancestrally Democratic “coal country”; Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin won it by 34 points in 2012, and a Democrat represented the 3rd District as recently as 2014. Four Democrats are vying to be the next to do so, with the biggest name being state Sen. Richard Ojeda. Not only has Ojeda dramatically outraised the Democratic field, but he also has an Avengers-worthy origin story: After being attacked and brutally beaten two days before the 2016 primary, he surged to a shocking victory over an incumbent Democratic legislator, then won a 78-19 Trump seat in the general election. On the Republican side, three seasoned politicos have the resources to pull off a win: state Delegate Rupie Phillips, former state party chair Conrad Lucas and, most flush with cash, state House Majority Whip Carol Miller.

CORRECTION (May 7, 2018, 1:20 p.m.): An earlier version of this article incorrectly said there were no statewide offices on the ballot in North Carolina this year. There are no statewide races up in the May 8 primary, but some statewide judges are up for election this fall.

CORRECTION (May 7, 2018, 3:22 p.m.): A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Richard Cordray’s current NRA rating is an “A.” The A rating is from 2010; his most recent rating was a C-.

Footnotes

  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.

Nathaniel Rakich is a politics and baseball writer whose work has also appeared in The New Yorker, The New Republic and The Boston Globe.

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