6 Races To Watch This Primary Election Day

·10 min read

Although the general election campaigns are well underway in many states, in some the primary season is not over yet.

Voters in Connecticut, Minnesota, Vermont and Wisconsin head to the polls on Tuesday to select their parties’ nominees for state and federal offices.

A special election in Minnesota’s farm country and the Wisconsin Republican gubernatorial primary could both measure the fallout of the U.S. Supreme Court’s June decision sending abortion rights back to the states. Former President Donald Trump is hoping for a loss for an ultraconservative Republican lawmaker in Wisconsin, a hated foe of Democrats who nevertheless wouldn’t follow Trump’s election denial script. And while progressive icons try to hold their ground in Minnesota, the activist left seeks to capture new terrain in Vermont.

Here’s what HuffPost is watching:

In Minnesota's 1st Congressional District, Jeff Ettinger, a Democrat (left), is hoping to pull off an upset against Republican Brad Finstad, a former Trump administration official. (Photo: Facebook/Associated Press)
In Minnesota's 1st Congressional District, Jeff Ettinger, a Democrat (left), is hoping to pull off an upset against Republican Brad Finstad, a former Trump administration official. (Photo: Facebook/Associated Press)

In Minnesota's 1st Congressional District, Jeff Ettinger, a Democrat (left), is hoping to pull off an upset against Republican Brad Finstad, a former Trump administration official. (Photo: Facebook/Associated Press)

A Minnesota Special Election Tests Democratic Momentum

Lately, Democrats sailing the political waters have spotted some indications of calmer seas ahead, indicating the coming midterm elections will not be the red wave they fear. A June 28 special election in Nebraska’s 1st Congressional District, held just days after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Democrats dramatically outperformed expectations. Though they didn’t win the seat, which covers most of rural western Nebraska, they lost by just 5 percentage points after Trump won the same territory by 11 percentage points in November 2020.

The idea that the Supreme Court’s decision ending federal protections for abortion rights energized a previously sleepy Democratic base has only gained steam in the month since: Democrats have ticked up in generic public polling, and the likely passage of a sweeping climate, health and tax bill has boosted morale. Add in last week’s romp for abortion rights supporters in Kansas and you have the beginnings of a narrative.

That narrative will see its next test on Tuesday night in Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District, which is open after GOP Rep. Jim Hagedorn died of cancer earlier this year. The district covers agricultural southern Minnesota, including Rochester and the Mayo Clinic, and has become solidly Republican on the presidential level: Trump won it by 11 percentage points in 2020, even as Democrats came within 3 percentage points of ousting Hagedorn.

This race puts Democrat Jeff Ettinger, the former CEO of Hormel Foods, against Republican Brad Finstad, a farmer and former state representative. Though the GOP is clearly favored here, the margin of victory will be closely watched, with Democrats likely to celebrate even a remotely close race. While special elections are not particularly predictive on a race-by-race basis, they can collectively reveal broad trends.

Ettinger’s ads, however, don’t mention abortion rights, instead focusing on his experience running Hormel and arguing he knows how to lower the cost of food. One potential twist: The special election is the same day as the GOP primary for November for a new, slightly different 1st District, meaning Finstad will need to hold off both Ettinger and state Rep. Jeremy Munson, a more conservative Republican, on the same day if he wants to have more than a brief tenure in the House.

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) is fighting off a primary challenge from Don Samuels in Minnesota's 5th Congressional District. (Photo: Facebook/Associated Press)
Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) is fighting off a primary challenge from Don Samuels in Minnesota's 5th Congressional District. (Photo: Facebook/Associated Press)

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) is fighting off a primary challenge from Don Samuels in Minnesota's 5th Congressional District. (Photo: Facebook/Associated Press)

Rep. Ilhan Omar Faces A Second Primary Challenge

Almost immediately after Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) arrived in Congress in 2019, her critics in the Twin Cities ― and across the country ― have fantasized about replacing her with a less left-wing Democrat. In 2020, right-leaning pro-Israel groups helped bundle money for Antone Melton-Meaux, an employment lawyer challenging her, but Omar defeated him easily. This year, Omar’s most credible challenger is former Minneapolis City Councilman Don Samuels. Samuels is running as a more pragmatic legislator who would better reflect the public-safety views of Minneapolis residents. Minneapolis voters rejected a referendum last November that would have replaced the city’s police department with a new entity. (Samuels was on the winning side of that vote, while Omar was not.)

In Minnesota’s progressive 5th Congressional District, Omar remains the favorite against Samuels. And no one has come close to ousting a member of the House’s left-wing “Squad” to date. But Samuels has picked up more mainstream support than Omar’s previous challenger, winning the endorsements of local building trades unions and Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey (D).

Jim Schultz (left) has the Republican Party of Minnesota's endorsement in his bid for attorney general. Doug Wardlow is still competing in the primary on Tuesday for the chance of a rematch against Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison. (Photo: Facebook)
Jim Schultz (left) has the Republican Party of Minnesota's endorsement in his bid for attorney general. Doug Wardlow is still competing in the primary on Tuesday for the chance of a rematch against Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison. (Photo: Facebook)

Jim Schultz (left) has the Republican Party of Minnesota's endorsement in his bid for attorney general. Doug Wardlow is still competing in the primary on Tuesday for the chance of a rematch against Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison. (Photo: Facebook)

The Contest To Take On Attorney General Keith Ellison

In a single term as attorney general of Minnesota, Keith Ellison has made a national mark. He oversaw the successful prosecution of the police officer who killed George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020. A former progressive member of Congress, Ellison has also fought to defend Minnesota’s law regulating insulin prices, negotiate legal compensatory settlements with opioid manufacturers, crack down on abusive landlords and protect the rights of transgender students.

The Republican Party of Minnesota officially endorsed corporate lawyer Jim Schultz in May to take on Ellison. But Doug Wardlow, a conservative movement lawyer who ran unsuccessfully against Ellison in 2018, has stayed in the race despite his promise to withdraw if he did not receive the official GOP endorsement. On Tuesday, Republican primary voters will get the final say.

Republican insiders believe that Schultz would be a stronger contender than Wardlow to oust Ellison. Schultz is running to reverse what he sees as Ellison’s heavy-handed approach to combating police misconduct, and to challenge alleged left-wing influence in public schools. His first TV ad touts both the GOP endorsement and the backing of a state police officers’ union.

Wardlow, by contrast, is more affiliated with the right-wing fringe of the Republican Party. An attorney for Mike Lindell, the election-denying founder of MyPillow, he puts a greater emphasis on rooting out alleged election fraud and fighting an existing state Supreme Court decision preventing Minnesota from prohibiting abortion.

Vermont state Senate President Becca Balint (left) is competing with Lt. Gov. Molly Gray for the Democratic nomination for Vermont's sole House seat. Balint is backed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), while Gray has the support of the state's Democratic establishment. (Photo: Associated Press)
Vermont state Senate President Becca Balint (left) is competing with Lt. Gov. Molly Gray for the Democratic nomination for Vermont's sole House seat. Balint is backed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), while Gray has the support of the state's Democratic establishment. (Photo: Associated Press)

Vermont state Senate President Becca Balint (left) is competing with Lt. Gov. Molly Gray for the Democratic nomination for Vermont's sole House seat. Balint is backed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), while Gray has the support of the state's Democratic establishment. (Photo: Associated Press)

Bernie Sanders vs. Vermont Democrats – Again

Well before Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) started annoying some Democrats at the national level, he was warring with them in his hometown of Burlington. And the retirement of longtime Sen. Pat Leahy ― officially the only Democrat ever sent to the Senate by Vermont voters ― has created yet another chapter in Sanders’ long-running battle against the state’s Democratic establishment.

Democratic Rep. Peter Welch, the state’s only member of the House, is walking into Leahy’s seat in the Senate. Two contenders have emerged for the open spot in the House: Lt. Gov. Molly Gray and the more progressive state Sen. Becca Balint. Either candidate would be the first woman ever to represent Vermont in Congress.

Gray has locked up the support of most prominent Vermont Democrats, including former Gov. Howard Dean and Leahy himself. Balint, on the other hand, has the backing of Sanders, who held three rallies with her last month, and a host of national progressives and LGBTQ groups: Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), the Congressional Progressive Caucus, the LGBTQ Victory Fund and the Human Rights Campaign.

Polling in the race shows Balint is now a heavy favorite: Recent surveys from the University of New Hampshire and Data for Progress now have her receiving roughly 60% of the vote, while Gray is receiving roughly 25%.

The Republican gubernatorial primary between Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and self-funding construction executive Tim Michels is a proxy battle between former Vice President Mike Pence and former President Donald Trump. (Photo: Getty Images)
The Republican gubernatorial primary between Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and self-funding construction executive Tim Michels is a proxy battle between former Vice President Mike Pence and former President Donald Trump. (Photo: Getty Images)

The Republican gubernatorial primary between Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and self-funding construction executive Tim Michels is a proxy battle between former Vice President Mike Pence and former President Donald Trump. (Photo: Getty Images)

Another GOP Proxy War With Abortion Rights On The Line

Wisconsin Republicans are picking their nominee to go up against Democratic Gov. Tony Evers in a race with familiar overtones.

Donald Trump has his pick: construction executive Tim Michels, a newcomer who’s largely self-funding his campaign. Michels was effectively tied in the latest poll with former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, who’s backed by former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, as well as former Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). Both Cruz and Pence — Pence more overtly — are inserting themselves in primaries with an eye toward campaigns of their own in 2024. Wisconsin state Rep. Tim Ramthun is also in the mix.

With the former president expected to mount a White House comeback, the symbolism of Trump endorsing one candidate while Cruz and Pence align with another isn’t meant to go unnoticed. The same dynamic played out last week in Arizona, where Trump’s candidate for governor, former newscaster Kari Lake, lost to Pence’s pick, developer Karrin Taylor Robson.

The winner in November will shape abortion policy in Wisconsin at a critical time. After the fall of Roe v. Wade, Evers and Attorney General Josh Kaul — another Democrat seeking a second term in office — attempted to block an 1849 abortion law that would outlaw the procedure in nearly all cases. The three GOP candidates for governor say they support the 1849 law and wouldn’t seek to add exceptions for pregnancies caused by rape or incest.

In Michigan, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is also fighting for reelection against a staunch anti-abortion Republican while trying to block the state’s abortion trigger law.

Wisconsin has trended Democratic since 2018, culminating in Joe Biden’s narrow 2020 victory and making it a steeper climb for Republicans this fall, despite a favorable national climate.

Adam Steen (left) has Trump's blessing in his bid to unseat Wisconsin state Assembly Speaker Robin Vos. Vos, who is loathed by Democrats, refused to fully comply with Trump's requests for interference in the certification of the state's election results. (Photo: Facebook/Associated Press)
Adam Steen (left) has Trump's blessing in his bid to unseat Wisconsin state Assembly Speaker Robin Vos. Vos, who is loathed by Democrats, refused to fully comply with Trump's requests for interference in the certification of the state's election results. (Photo: Facebook/Associated Press)

Adam Steen (left) has Trump's blessing in his bid to unseat Wisconsin state Assembly Speaker Robin Vos. Vos, who is loathed by Democrats, refused to fully comply with Trump's requests for interference in the certification of the state's election results. (Photo: Facebook/Associated Press)

Wisconsin’s Mitch McConnell Fights For His Political Life

Across the country, Democrats have found themselves rooting for some Republicans who have stood up to Trump’s election lies ― while working against some others, especially those in competitive seats.

One Republican targeted by Trump whom Democrats will find it hard to root for: Robin Vos, the longtime speaker of the Wisconsin State Assembly. Democrats in the Badger State regularly compare Vos, a ruthless supporter of gerrymandering and measures to undercut Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and weaken labor unions, to Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.

Vos never fully stood up to the former president, refusing to say outright the election wasn’t stolen and allocating more than $670,000 of taxpayer money to a former judge who led a sham investigation into voter fraud in the state, finding no actual evidence but embracing a host of conspiracy theories. That wasn’t good enough for Trump, who has blasted Vos for refusing to “decertify” the election in Wisconsin ― an impossible and likely meaningless step.

Last week, Trump endorsed Adam Steen, Vos’ challenger in the GOP primary, calling Vos a “RINO,” or Republican in name only, and saying he refused to listen to the “cyber forensic audit.”

“We need to fire and replace him with Adam Steen,” Trump said at his rally in Wisconsin last week.

This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.