7 Races To Watch On The First Big Primary Day Of The Pandemic

Kevin Robillard

Tuesday marks the first major multistate election day since the earliest days of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States, with the nominations for critical House and Senate races up for grabs and a number of nationally known politicians at risk of losing their seats.

Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Montana, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and South Dakota are all holding primaries on Tuesday. Races across the eight states will point to additional signs about the direction of both the Democratic and Republican parties. Will Republicans tolerate Trump-like rhetoric on race from a candidate other than Donald Trump? Does Democrats’ preference for Joe Biden-like moderation translate down-ballot? How does the shift to vote-by-mail impact pandemic-era turnout? 

The highest-profile contest is likely in rural northwest Iowa, where GOP Rep. Steve King, who has a long history of racist remarks, is trying to fend off a challenge from a fellow Republican. Meanwhile, the Democratic nomination to challenge GOP Sen. Joni Ernst is up for grabs, with Washington Democrats spending heavily to get their favored candidate over the finish line. 

In New Mexico, former CIA agent Valerie Plame ― a Bush-era liberal darling ― is struggling to win the Democratic nomination in a district centered around Santa Fe. In the state’s southern half, Democrats are interfering in an already brutal Republican primary, hoping to pick an opponent for one of the GOP’s most vulnerable House members. 

And in Montana, a third-party primary where it’s unlikely more than a few thousand votes will be cast could play a crucial role in determining control of the U.S. Senate. 

None of Tuesday’s contests are likely to reveal much about how American politics will shift following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody and the resulting protests. Mail-in ballots mean many people voted before Floyd’s death, and most of the races are taking place far from major urban centers.

Here are seven races to watch on Tuesday:

Can Rep. Steve King Survive?

Mainstream Republicans have had it with GOP Rep. Steve King, whose embrace of white nationalist rhetoric has made him one of the House’s best-known and least-powerful members. King, who nearly lost his deeply conservative district in rural Northwest Iowa to Democrat J.D. Scholten in 2018, is now facing a well-financed challenger, Iowa state Senate President Randy Feenstra, who has the backing of nearly every establishment Republican whose endorsement matters. 

As HuffPost’s Christopher Mathias wrote this week, the effort to oust King has largely avoided focusing on his racist rhetoric, instead arguing King would hurt other Republicans politically and is unable to effectively advocate for his district because he no longer serves on committees. (King has claimed he may be able to reclaim his committee spots in the next Congress.)

There’s been limited public polling of the race, but what is available shows a tight contest, with the possibilities that minor candidates could deny Feenstra the votes to seize the nomination from King. 

Democrats would prefer that Scholten face King, a weaker candidate, in the November general election. 

The Tiny Primary With A Big Sky Impact

Third-party nominations almost never matter in American politics, but the race in Montana might be a rare exception. Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock’s late entrance into the race against GOP Sen. Steve Daines instantly moved this reelection contest from afterthought to the political center stage. Bullock, who has a high approval rating and has won statewide twice, is seen as the only Democrat in the state who could defeat Daines. Operatives in both parties believe the race could make or break control of the Senate. 

This primary is expected to be close, and third-party voters could be crucial. Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester won in both 2006 and 2012 with less than half of the vote because Libertarian candidates drew small but significant percentages. Republicans are hoping to damage Bullock’s chances in a similar fashion ― the Montana GOP spent at least $100,000 to help the Green Party qualify for the ballot, hoping to draw away a crucial sliver of liberal-leaning voters. 

Here’s the twist: Two people are running for the Green Party’s nomination. One, retired college professor Dennis Daneke, has promised to drop out of the race if nominated in order to clear the way for Bullock. Go Green Montana, a PAC linked to a GOP consulting firm, meanwhile, has spent tens of thousands of dollars promoting rival candidate Wendie Fredrickson and calling Daneke a “puppet of big Democrats.”

In 2018, a mere 1,500 people voted in the Green Party primary for Senate. A similar number of people could end up having an enormous sway over which party ends up controlling the Senate in 2021.  

Elsewhere in Montana, there are competitive primaries in both parties for the gubernatorial nomination ― Democrats have held the state’s governorship for the past 16 years, even as Republicans have dominated on the presidential level and seized control of the state legislature. 

On the GOP side, Rep. Greg Gianforte ― who made national news for assaulting a reporter in 2017 ― has deployed his personal fortune and is now favored against Attorney General Tim Fox. The Democratic primary, meanwhile, pits Lt. Gov Mike Cooney against businessperson Whitney Williams. Cooney has the backing of Tester and Bullock, while EMILY’s List has spent aggressively for Williams.

Iowa’s Democratic Senate Primary

Theresa Greenfield, the candidate endorsed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, is expected to win. But she needs to earn more than 35% of the vote in a four-way race to avoid having to secure the nomination at a convention later this summer.

Iowa, where GOP Sen. Joni Ernst is running for reelection, is expected to be a major Senate battleground ― both parties have reserved millions of dollars of television time in the state for the fall. Republicans hope a weaker-than-expected performance by Greenfield could prevent the party from focusing its fire on Ernst early. 

The DSCC’s early endorsement of Greenfield, a political neophyte and small-business owner who made an aborted run for Congress in 2018, irritated some local Democrats. Two men have succeeded in running relatively serious campaigns for the nomination: retired Navy Vice Adm. Mike Franken and businessperson Eddie Mauro.

While national Democratic groups allied with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer have spent more than $10 million boosting Greenfield, Franken managed to generate buzz by earning the endorsement of the Des Moines Register, and Mauro has run ads attacking her. EMILY’s List ― rare among Democratic groups for its willingness to go negative during primaries ― has aired ads attacking both men. 

Democrats Meddle in New Mexico

One of the toughest House seats for Democrats to hold in 2020 will be New Mexico’s 2nd District, which covers the rural southern half of the state, where the economy is based around oil and gas production. Democratic Rep. Xochitl Torres Small, a 35-year-old Latina lawyer, defeated Republican Yvette Herrell by fewer than 4,000 votes in 2018, one of the best years for Democrats in recent political memory.

This time around, Herrell is battling businessperson Claire Chase for the GOP nomination, and Democrats have decided Herrell would be the weaker candidate because of her voting record in New Mexico’s legislature. Two Democratic outside groups ― one affiliated with EMILY’s List, the other a little-known super PAC ― have paid for advertising highlighting Facebook posts Chase made insulting Trump as an “asshole unworthy of the office.” 

At the same time, Republicans allied with Chase have fired back with ads alleging Herrell plotted to deny Trump the GOP nomination. Democrats are hoping the contentious primary, which was already nasty before their meddling, will increase Torres Small’s chances of holding the seat. 

 Will Valerie Plame Make It To Congress?

The battle between former CIA agent Valerie Plame and local activist Teresa Leger Fernandez for the Democratic nomination in New Mexico’s 3rd District, which covers Santa Fe and the state’s north, is essentially a ticket to Congress. 

It’s a race where the battle lines have been clear for a while: Leger Fernandez has paired her stronger ties to the district with endorsements from Washington-based liberal groups and progressive politicians ― Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren endorsed her on Monday ― while Plame has used her fame to gain a financial advantage and air additional television ads. 

The most recent polling in the race shows Leger Fernandez with a slight edge. 

A Moderate Might Walk Into Congress

Indiana Democratic Rep. Pete Viscloscky’s retirement after more than three decades in Congress should have provided a major opportunity for the left to seize his safely Democratic seat representing Northwest Indiana, an area known simply as “the region” that has more ties to Chicago than it does to Indianapolis.

Instead, it appears a relative moderate ― 16-year Hammond Mayor Tom McDermott Jr. ― is the clear favorite to claim the seat, thanks to a financial and name identification advantage. McDermott, a charter school backer who was considering a primary challenge to Viscloscky because of the incumbent’s support for Trump’s impeachment, has the support of both former presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg and former Sen. Joe Donnelly, and has raised twice as much as his closest competitor.

Viscloscky, however, is backing North Township Trustee Frank Mrvan, and also helped Mrvan secure the support of the influential steelworkers’ union. Meanwhile, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’ BOLD PAC is supporting state Sen. Mara Candelaria Reardon, who is seen as the most progressive candidate in the race with a shot at winning. Reardon made news when she was one of the first women to accuse Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill of sexual harassment. There are 11 other candidates on a crowded primary ballot.

Steny Hoyer Faces His Version Of AOC

House Majority Whip Steny Hoyer, who represents a Maryland district centered around the majority-black Washington suburb of Prince George’s County, is facing a challenge from the left from McKayla Wilkes, a 29-year-old African American mother of two. The race has drawn comparisons with New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s successful primary challenge of Joe Crowley during the 2018 midterms.

The primary has, at the very least, forced Hoyer to spend substantial sums on digital advertising. But while Wilkes has succeeded in generating some buzz by frankly discussing how her personal experiences ― including an arrest for marijuana use when she was a teenager and an abortion ― have shaped her policy beliefs, there’s been little indication she’s generated the type of momentum necessary to oust Hoyer, who’s been in office for nearly 40 years. At the same time, a lack of public polling on the race means another surprise can’t be ruled out. 

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This article originally appeared on HuffPost.