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Democrats not sweating contested Senate primaries — yet

Another Democrat jumped into the Texas Senate race on Monday

Democrats are gearing up for a competitive Senate primary in Texas to take on Republican incumbent John Cornyn. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Democrats are gearing up for a competitive Senate primary in Texas to take on Republican incumbent John Cornyn. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Another Democratic candidate jumped into the race Monday to take on Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn — the latest sign that Democrats could face multiple contested primaries for Senate seats they think they can win in 2020.

Despite the prospect of intramural warfare, Democrats say they aren’t fretting yet that the primaries could endanger efforts to win control of the Senate, which will likely go through Texas, Colorado and other states.

“I’m not concerned because it’s so early,” said Katie Farnan, a leader of Indivisible Front Range Resistance in Colorado, where ten Democrats are vying to take on first-term GOP Sen. Cory Gardner.

“If you come back in 2020 at the top of the year, I’m going to have a different answer,” Farnan said.

Primaries can be early tests for candidates by helping them work out the kinks before a competitive general election. But primaries can also drain resources and damage the eventual nominees with bruising political attacks.

Republicans could face their own problematic primaries this cycle in at least two of the three states where Democratic senators face competitive reelections, according to Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales.

But primaries appear to be a bigger problem for Democrats, who are targeting more races in their effort to flip the chamber.

Six of the seven Republican-held Senate seats that Inside Elections rates as competitive — Colorado, Maine, North Carolina, Georgia, Texas and Iowa — feature multiple Democrats who have been raising money. But a  few top contenders have already started to emerge in those races.

Lone Star appeal

The race to take on Cornyn grew more crowded Monday with state Sen. Royce West launching his campaign. The primary already features Houston City Councilmember Amanda Edwards, who entered the race last week, and Air Force veteran MJ Hegar, who lost a 2018 House race.

Hegar has raised more than $1 million in her Senate campaign so far. A spokeswoman for Edwards said Monday that her campaign raised more than $200,000 in its first 24 hours. West said in a brief interview Monday that he expects he’ll have to raise between $4 million and $5 million to win the primary. 

Primaries often raise concerns that candidates will be forced to empty their campaign coffers, while the incumbent rakes in money. Cornyn, for example, already has $9.1 million in the bank.

But Democrats are trying to frame expensive primary fights as a positive.

“Six years ago, we couldn’t get one candidate to run against John Cornyn,” said Abhi Rahman, a spokesman for the Texas Democratic Party. He said the nominee will have the necessary resources because Texas “is now on the map” as a battleground state.

Texas isn’t the Democrats’ best Senate pickup opportunity, given that President Donald Trump won the state by 9 points in 2016. 

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That title may belong to Colorado, which backed Hillary Clinton by 5 points in 2016. Inside Elections rates the race to unseat Gardner a Toss-up. And the already-large Democratic field there could grow. Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold formed an exploratory committee last week.

Democrats’ next best opportunity is the Toss-up race in Arizona, where Mark Kelly has virtually cleared the primary field to take on appointed GOP Sen. Martha McSally. But the other competitive states that Democrats are targeting, including Maine, North Carolina, Georgia and Iowa, feature multiple primary candidates.  

Show me the money

Colorado presents the most wide-open Democratic primary, with multiple candidates raising more than $750,000 so far. The top fundraiser has been former state Sen. Mike Johnston, who’s raked in $3.4 million so far.

No concerns about the crowded field came up at an Indivisible forum last month, which was the first time nearly all the Senate hopefuls shared a stage. Farnan, who organized the event, said she enjoys hearing from a diverse field at this point. But she hopes it narrows by the beginning of next year so the remaining candidates can better focus resources on amplifying the Democrats’ message and boosting their name recognition. 

In Maine, North Carolina and Iowa, some Democrats are separating from the field early.

Army veteran and former state Sen. Cal Cunningham raised the most of the Democratic field so far in North Carolina, bringing in $722,000 since launching his campaign last month. The only other Democrat who had raised more than $100,000, former state Sen. Eric Mansfield, ended his campaign earlier this month. 

In the race to take on four-term Sen. Susan Collins in Maine, state House speaker Sara Gideon won the endorsements of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and EMILY’s List. Betsy Sweet, who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2018, has been endorsed by the progressive group Justice Democrats. Gideon has raised more than $1 million so far, compared to Sweet’s $81,000. 

The DSCC and EMILY’s List have also endorsed Theresa Greenfield in Iowa, where Republican Joni Ernst is running for a second term. Greenfield has also outraised the two other Democrats in the race.

It’s possible EMILY’s List could endorse in other primaries as well. Spokesman Ben Ray said the abortion rights group is “always open to working through a contested Democratic primary.”

Grassroots grumbling

But the involvement of national groups has drawn the ire of a few Democratic Senate hopefuls. 

“Here we go again. The DC political elite is trying to tell Mainers who our candidate should be,” Sweet tweeted after the DSCC backed Gideon.

Eddie Mauro, who is running for Senate in Iowa, said after the DSCC backed Greenfield that “Iowans want a spirited primary not influenced by Washington insiders or the establishment.”

Intraparty battles could raise questions about whether anyone will be challenging the GOP incumbent while the Democrats fight each other.

Some Democratic operatives pushed back on those concerns, noting that state parties and candidates themselves will continue to place pressure on Republicans. Rahman, the spokesman for the Texas Democrats, pointed out that the party has a dedicated “Cornyn war room” to target the senator in digital campaigns, and to conduct polling and research.

Republicans anticipate these crowded primary fights will force the eventual Democratic nominees to take positions that are too liberal for a general election. But the GOP will have to contend with its own primaries, as Democrats are quick to note. Inside Elections rates the races for three Democrat-held Senate seats as competitive: Alabama,  Michigan and New Hampshire. 

The Alabama seat of Democrat Doug Jones represents the GOP’s best pickup opportunity. The crowded Republican field there includes former Judge Roy Moore, who lost to Jones in a 2017 special election after facing allegations of sexual misconduct. The GOP Senate primary in New Hampshire has already seen candidates trading barbs in the race to face two-term Democratic incumbent Jeanne Shaheen

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