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6 things to watch in Tuesday’s primaries

Key races in Indiana, Iowa, Montana, New Mexico and Pennsylvania

Iowa GOP Rep. Steve King faces a competitive primary Tuesday.
Iowa GOP Rep. Steve King faces a competitive primary Tuesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Eight states will hold primaries Tuesday, with several featuring critical contests in the battle for Congress. 

Four of the states were supposed to have held their primaries in April, but the elections were postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Rhode Island will hold its presidential primary only, but Tuesday’s congressional races to watch Tuesday will be in Indiana, Iowa, Montana, New Mexico and Pennsylvania. 

Maryland and South Dakota will also have primaries Tuesday, and Idaho’s extension of the time to return ballots from its May 19 primary ends the same day, but there are no competitive congressional races on the ballot. The District of Columbia is also holding primaries for president and its nonvoting House delegate.

Here are six things to watch Tuesday:

1. Voting in a pandemic

Tuesday will be an early test of whether the states that postponed primaries originally set for April or May, and those whose elections were scheduled for June 2 all along, have had enough time to adjust to the pandemic.

Montana Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock signed an executive order allowing counties to conduct their June 2 elections entirely by mail, and all 56 counties decided to do so, according to Montana Public Radio. Registered voters in Iowa and New Mexico were sent absentee ballot applications in the mail. 

Election officials in multiple states are reporting exponential increases in absentee ballot requests compared to previous elections. On a recent press call, leaders for the watchdog group Common Cause based in states with primaries on Tuesday warned of ongoing issues with ballots arriving late, confusion around deadlines, and the potential for long lines due to a shortage of poll workers and a drastic reduction in polling places. 

In New Mexico, Democratic Rep. Ben Ray Luján, who is running for Senate, asked Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver to extend the deadline for counting absentee ballots after reports that some voters were having trouble with the process. A spokesman told the Santa Fe New Mexican that Toulouse Oliver does not have the legal authority to do so. 

2. An incumbent in trouble? 

While it’s very difficult to defeat a sitting member of Congress in a primary, Iowa GOP Rep. Steve King could lose on Tuesday. Multiple Republicans are taking on King, although the top challenger is state Sen. Randy Feenstra, who has outraised the field and has the backing of outside groups. King’s controversial and racist remarks cost him House committee seats last year, which has become a central issue in the primary. If no candidate wins more than 35 percent of the vote Tuesday, the nominee would be decided at a party convention. 

3. Senate matchups 

Iowa Democrats will pick their nominee to take on GOP incumbent Joni Ernst, among the most vulnerable senators this cycle. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has endorsed real estate executive Theresa Greenfield, and outside groups have spent millions in the primary to boost her. Greenfield faces three opponents: retired three-star Navy Adm. Mike Franken, insurance broker Eddie Mauro and lawyer Kimberly Graham.

Montanans already have their eyes on the Senate general election in November, where Bullock will most certainly face Republican incumbent Steve Daines. Both have nominal primary challengers Tuesday. 

Luján is unopposed in the Democratic Senate primary in New Mexico, and he is considered a favorite to win in November. But there’s a three-way race for the GOP nomination. National Republicans tell CQ Roll Call they are excited about former television personality Mark Ronchetti, who they say is the only candidate with the statewide name recognition to take on Luján. Ronchetti faces Gavin Clarkson, a college professor and former Interior Department official, and anti-abortion activist Elisa Martinez. 

4. 2018 comeback attempts 

The two leading candidates seeking their parties’ nomination for Montana’s at-large House seat are both looking for a do-over of sorts from last cycle. Democrat Kathleen Williams, a onetime state lawmaker, ran in 2018 and lost to GOP Rep. Greg Gianforte, who is now running for governor. Williams is leading in the money chase this cycle, with $1.2 million on hand as of May 13. She faces state Rep. Tom Winter in Tuesday’s Democratic primary. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee recently added Williams to its Red to Blue program for strong recruits.

The top GOP contender in the race is state Auditor Matt Rosendale, who had just under $900,000 in the bank and is also back at it this cycle after losing the 2018 Senate race to Democratic Sen. Jon Tester. Rosendale is one of six Republicans on the primary ballot, including Montana Secretary of State Corey Stapleton. Both Stapleton and Rosendale ran for the seat in 2014 and finished behind Ryan Zinke in the GOP primary.

In New Mexico, former state Rep. Yvette Herrell is seeking a rematch against vulnerable Democratic Rep. Xochitl Torres Small in the 2nd District after losing by less than 2 points in 2018. This time around, Herrell has the support of many in the state Legislature. But she faces a spirited challenge from oil and gas industry executive Claire Chase in a race that has turned personal and nasty in recent weeks. 

5. Women on the ballot

Just 13 of the 101 women in the House are Republicans, and Tuesday’s elections may provide a window into whether that number will grow

In Indiana’s 5th District, where GOP Rep. Susan W. Brooks is retiring, two of the three front-runners are women. State Sen. Victoria Spartz, who has spent $750,000 from her own pocket on the race, has a financial advantage, but the Ukraine native has been targeted by other candidates over her heritage.

Among those who have hit her hardest: businesswoman Beth Henderson, who has spent $255,000 of her own money in the race and aired ads proclaiming she was born in the United States. In all, 15 Republicans and five Democrats are running for the seat. Of them, three on each side are women, including the Democratic front-runner, former state Rep. Christina Hale. 

In Indiana’s 1st District, where longtime Rep. Peter J. Visclosky is retiring, state Rep. Mara Candelaria Reardon is vying for the Democratic nomination in a crowded race that also includes Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott and North Township Trustee Frank J. Mrvan, who has Visclosky’s endorsement. In all, 14 Democrats are running for the seat that is expected to stay blue in November. Four are women. None of the six candidates in the GOP primary are women. 

New Mexico could be one step closer to sending its first all-female delegation to the House after Tuesday, if either Herrell or Chase win the 2nd District primary. In the open 3rd District race to replace Luján, the top Democratic candidates are lawyer Teresa Leger Fernendez and former CIA officer Valerie Plame, and whoever wins Tuesday is likely to win in November given the district’s partisan lean. 

Republicans may nominate another female candidate in Pennsylvania’s 7th District, where GOP women’s groups have backed former Lehigh County Commissioner Lisa Scheller in the race to take on on freshman Democrat Susan Wild. Scheller could see a boost in the GOP primary from her recent endorsement by Trump. Democrats are also poised to nominate women for two of their targeted Pennsylvania seats

It’s also worth keeping an eye on Williams in Montana. The state has sent just one woman to Washington: Suffragist Jeannette Rankin, who in 1916 became the first woman elected to Congress. She served two nonconsecutive terms in the House.

6. Influence of outside groups 

Outside groups in both parties have been spending ahead of Tuesday’s primaries to bolster their preferred candidates. 

Democratic groups have poured money into the open-seat race in New Mexico’s 3rd District, most of it to boost Leger Fernandez. Women Vote!, the super PAC associated with EMILY’s List, has spent more than $300,000 and BOLD PAC, the campaign arm of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, has spent more than $400,000 on Leger Fernandez’s behalf.

Plame, who was famously outed as a CIA operations officer by the George W. Bush administration, has benefited from a $66,000 investment from VoteVets, a progressive group that supports military veterans. 

But she was also targeted by a series of ads that featured pictures of her with swastikas superimposed over her eyes and called her a “disgraced racist millionaire,” a reference to her 2017 retweet of an anti-Semitic article for which Plame has since apologized. Those ads were paid for by the Alliance to Combat Extremism Fund, a group that does not disclose its donors. The ad was denounced by other candidates in the race. 

Outside groups have also been spending on both of the top GOP fundraisers in the New Mexico’s 2nd District. 

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The campaign arm of the House Freedom Caucus and a tea party-linked super PAC have spent more than $400,000 to boost Herrell.

The Democratic super PAC Patriot Majority and Women Vote! have also spent more than $315,000 combined to oppose the two Republican candidates. But in attacking Herrell as a Trump loyalist, the spending could be a way to boost her with GOP primary voters and a sign Democrats see her as the potentially weaker candidate against Torres Small.

Defending Main Street, which was founded to help establishment Republicans facing tea party challengers, has spent $100,000 to support Chase.

In Iowa, however, Defending Main Street is spending against King, the first time the group has actively opposed an incumbent. Both Defending Main Street and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce jump into the race on Feenstra’s behalf out of fear that King could be a drag on Ernst if he is on the ballot in November.

Elsewhere in Iowa, Women Vote! has spent nearly $1 million against Greenfield’s two male Democratic primary opponents. Greenfield has also benefited from $6.7 million in spending from Senate Majority PAC, which is aligned with Senate Democratic leadership. 

The anti-tax Club for Growth has weighed in on a couple of Tuesday primaries. The group endorsed Spartz in Indiana’s 5th District, and its super PAC, Club for Growth Action, has spent more than $400,000 on two attack ads targeting Henderson and former county prosecutor Carl Brizzi for comments critical of Trump.

Club for Growth Action and the House Freedom Caucus’ campaign arm have made independent expenditures on behalf of Rosendale in Montana. The club’s super PAC spent $35,000 for phone banking, according to Federal Election Commission disclosures.

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