The most expensive Senate primary of 2018 and a pair of gubernatorial primaries key to Democrats’ Midwestern comeback attempt are up for grabs Tuesday, along with a handful of contests crucial to the battle for House control in November.
In Wisconsin, Republicans have seen more than $12 million in outside spending before they choose between two candidates competing to take on Sen. Tammy Baldwin, one of the 10 Democratic incumbents seeking reelection in states President Donald Trump carried in 2016. Democrats in the state will pick a candidate to face Gov. Scott Walker, a longtime nemesis who has weakened public-sector unions.
Story Continued Below
The parties are also clashing over four of Minnesota’s eight House districts, and primaries Tuesday in two of them — on opposite ends of the state — could go a long way in determining which party has the advantage in the general election.
Meanwhile, Tuesday also presents chances at political comebacks for two bold-faced names from the last decade: Ned Lamont in Connecticut, and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
Polls close at 7 p.m. Eastern in Vermont, 8 p.m. in Connecticut and 9 p.m. in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Here are six things to watch as the results come in:
Outside-versus-inside in Wisconsin
State Sen. Leah Vukmir has the backing of the state Republican Party, House Speaker Paul Ryan and key allies and even family members of Gov. Scott Walker. But businessman and veteran Kevin Nicholson has one very deep-pocketed backer: GOP megadonor Richard Uihlein, who has financed several groups that spent around $10 million on the airwaves boosting Nicholson.
Vukmir also has a billionaire backer, Diane Hendricks, but she has leaned more on a May endorsement from the state GOP, calling herself a proven conservative and campaigning on her role enacting Walker’s conservative agenda. Walker himself has stayed neutral in the race — he’ll share the ballot with whoever wins — but his wife endorsed Vukmir, his son is working on her campaign and operatives from his past campaigns are running a pro-Vukmir super PAC.
Nicholson has branded himself as a political outsider and on his record as a businessman and Marine, hoping to catch fire with Trump supporters who liked his anti-Washington message. Pro-Vukmir groups have attacked him for his past as a Democrat, but he’s attempted to use his conversion to the Republican Party as a positive.
Recent polls have shown a close race with a substantial group of undecided voters. Democrats are hoping the negativity of the race will leave the nominee bruised and broke heading into the general election against Baldwin.
But Republicans have already prepared themselves for the quick turnaround after the primary. The state GOP has specifically avoided going negative in the race so it is prepared to activate on behalf of Nicholson if he prevails. And Uihlein and Hendricks are co-chairing a fundraiser Friday for the primary winner.
Democrats’ picks in the upper Midwest
If it’s an even-numbered year, Scott Walker is running. First there was his 2010 election, which wrested the Wisconsin governor’s mansion from Democrats. Then it was the 2012 recall, when Democrats, angry over Walker’s move to strip public unions of collective-bargaining rights, unsuccessfully tried to boot him from Madison. After Walker won a hard-fought reelection in 2014, he quickly trained his eyes on the White House — but flamed out early in the nominating process. He returned to Wisconsin seriously wounded, with plummeting approval ratings.
Walker’s poll numbers have recovered somewhat, but Democrats still believe that the national environment, combined with voters’ Walker fatigue, gives them a good chance to deny him a third term.
First, Democrats have to pick a candidate among the 10 on the ballot. There’s been very little reliable polling of the race, but those surveys show only one candidate gaining much traction at all: Tony Evers, the state superintendent of public instruction.
Meanwhile, Democrats will also pick their nominee for governor in Minnesota, where the party is looking to hold onto the governor’s mansion after Mark Dayton’s two terms; the Democrat isn’t seeking a third. The race is a three-way contest between state Attorney General Lori Swanson, Rep. Tim Walz and state Rep. Erin Murphy.
The state’s Democrat-Farmer-Labor Party endorsement process has loomed large in the race. Murphy captured the imprimatur at the state party convention this year, while Swanson entered the race only because the party endorsed a challenger to her candidacy for reelection as attorney general.
‘Sam’s Club’ Republican meets the Trump era
When Pawlenty first ran for governor of Minnesota in 2002, he said the GOP had to be “the party of Sam’s Club, not the country club.”
Now he’s running for governor again, after years working for the financial industry in Washington, seeking the nomination of a party whose leader just spent two weeks governing and golfing at his own, eponymous country club. But despite that dissonance, the Republican Party has changed — and in the general direction Pawlenty had prescribed.
Trump put Minnesota on the map in the 2016 presidential race by turning traditionally blue, working-class corners of the state red — but he also ceded ground in the Twin Cities suburbs, as more-educated white voters fled the GOP nominee. Trump ended up losing the state by 1.5 points.
In order to win back the governorship, Pawlenty must unite those two wings of the party. But the one-time White House hopeful faces a fight just to capture his party’s nomination. Limited polls give Pawlenty a slight edge over Jeff Johnson, the GOP nominee against Dayton in 2014.
But Johnson has a lot of material with which to work against Pawlenty, and so will the Democratic nominee in the fall, if the man known as “T-Paw” wins the nomination. After his aborted 2012 presidential bid, Pawlenty became president of the Financial Services Roundtable — essentially serving as the financial industry’s chief lobbyist in Washington.
Pawlenty isn’t the only aughts-era politico looking to make a comeback on Tuesday: Lamont — who unseated then-Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) in a Democratic primary in 2006, only to lose in the general election when Lieberman ran as an independent — is the front-runner for the Democratic nomination for Connecticut governor.
A GOP opportunity in Connecticut
While Lamont is favored in the Democratic primary, five Republicans have been battling for months for the GOP nomination.
The candidates are Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton; Tim Herbst, the 2014 GOP nominee for state treasurer; Steve Obsitnik, who unsuccessfully challenged Rep. Jim Himes in 2012; former GE executive Bob Stefanowksi; and former hedge fund manager David Stemerman, who has loaned his campaign $10 million.
Republicans sense an opening despite the state’s Democratic lean, given retiring Gov. Dannel Malloy’s putrid approval ratings. And a victory in Connecticut could allow Republicans to increase their ranks in New England, even as the party struggles elsewhere.
Vermont Gov. Phil Scott faces one challenger in the Republican primary on Tuesday: Keith Stern, a grocer. Scott is favored to win reelection this fall.
Gov. Charlie Baker is virtually assured of reelection, even in bright-blue Massachusetts. New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu is a more narrow favorite to earn a second term to the north. A Suffolk University poll released last week showed a tied race in Maine, where Gov. Paul LePage is term-limited.
In addition to Connecticut, the GOP is on offense in Rhode Island, where a rematch is anticipated between Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo and Allan Fung, whom she defeated in 2014. A WPRI-TV/Roger Williams University poll released last week showed the two candidates neck-and-neck in the general election.
A changing of the guard in Minnesota
Tuesday’s primaries could go a long way in determining whether Republicans can pick up a few House seats that could offset Democratic gains elsewhere in November, as the GOP tries to protect its fragile 23-seat edge in the House.
Walz, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, has represented the 1st District in Southern Minnesota for 12 years. But he chose to mount a statewide campaign rather than seek a seventh term in a district Trump carried by 15 points. The political ground shifted right under Walz’s feet in the mostly rural district: In the 2012 election, then-President Barack Obama won the district by a point.
Democrats are likely to nominate Dan Feehan, an Army veteran and former Obama administration official. Republicans are choosing Tuesday between Jim Hagedorn — who lost to Walz in both 2014 and 2016 — and state Sen. Carla Nelson. Most observers see Nelson as the stronger general-election candidate, but Hagedorn maintains name ID in the district and earned the endorsement of the state GOP.
Rep. Rick Nolan (D-Minn.) made the same calculation in Northern Minnesota’s Iron Range as Walz down south: A statewide candidacy is preferable to running for another term in a district Trump won by 15 points. (Nolan is running for lieutenant governor on Tuesday.) Republicans have been touting their likely candidate: St. Louis County Commissioner Pete Stauber, who also got the coveted Trump Twitter endorsement on Monday.
Democrats, on the other hand, are hoping former state Rep. Joe Radinovich emerges from a five-way primary on Tuesday. They believe Radinovich, who managed Nolan’s 2016 campaign, is the only Democrat with the resources to take on Stauber in the fall.
The race for Paul Ryan’s seat
While the shock waves from Ryan’s retirement announcement earlier this year have subsided in Washington, they are still roiling his southeast Wisconsin congressional district, with competitive primaries in both parties.
On the Republican side, Ryan has endorsed Bryan Steil, a former Ryan aide and University of Wisconsin regent. But Steil faces four other opponents for the seat, including Paul Nehlan — Ryan’s 2016 primary challenger, who has made a series of racist and anti-Semitic comments.
Also on the ballot is Jeremy Ryan, who challenged Paul Ryan in 2014 and was described by the Janesville Gazette last week as “an enthusiastic marijuana smoker.”
The race for the Democratic nomination is between two candidates: ironworker Randy Bryce and Janesville school board member Cathy Myers. Bryce has been a fundraising machine, but he’s spent a lot, too: As of July 25, Bryce had raised $6.3 million for the cycle — and spent $4.6 million of it. Bryce would also bring some baggage to the race: He was arrested in 1998 for driving under the influence and later had his license suspended.
Trump carried the district by 10 points in 2016, and the GOP nominee will likely enter the general election as a slight favorite.