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What’s at stake in primaries Tuesday in Georgia, Nevada, South Carolina and West Virginia

Open House seats and key Senate matchups may be settled

Georgia Democrat Jon Ossoff lost a closely watched special election for an open House seat in 2017 and needs to get more than 50 percent of the vote in Tuesday's Senate primary to avoid a runoff in the race to challenge Republican Sen. David Perdue.
Georgia Democrat Jon Ossoff lost a closely watched special election for an open House seat in 2017 and needs to get more than 50 percent of the vote in Tuesday's Senate primary to avoid a runoff in the race to challenge Republican Sen. David Perdue. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

South Carolina Republicans on Tuesday will choose their nominee for a House district they see as one of their biggest 2020 pickup opportunities, while Georgia Democrats make their pick for one of two Senate seats up this year. And in Nevada, a former professional wrestler is vying for the GOP nomination to take on Democratic Rep. Susie Lee. 

Overall,  voters in five states — Georgia, Nevada, North Dakota, South Carolina and West Virginia — are holding primaries Tuesday and here are some things to watch.

Any impact from unrest?

Tuesday’s election is the second since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody set off a wave of protests across the country. The civil unrest is unlikely to move any primaries, with Democrats largely united in their calls for policing overhauls and Republicans vying to appeal to core voters who have remained supportive of President Donald Trump in spite of national opinion polls that show most Americans are unhappy with his response to the protests. 

But with a handful of GOP leaders reportedly mulling a public split with the president, Tuesday’s primaries could nevertheless send some early signals of whether Republicans in congressional races see any value in following suit. 

West Virginia Sen Shelley Moore Capito, who is on the ballot Tuesday, was among a handful of Republicans to offer measured criticism of the president last week. 

“We are obviously in a divisive situation right now that’s escalating, and I think he needs to make more unifying comments,” she told Politico.

Capito can afford to be outspoken. She had raised $4.2 million and had $3.1 million in the bank as of May 20. Two Republicans are challenging her Tuesday, but only one, conservative religious activist Allen Whitt, had raised any money, and that was just $60,000. He had less than $7,000 left. Capito’s focus is likely on the full slate of Democrats jostling to take her on in November. 

Candidates who have competitive GOP primaries, by contrast, have stuck with the president. That was the case in South Carolina’s 1st District, where there is a four-way primary to take on vulnerable Democratic Rep. Joe Cunningham. As protests raged in the week leading up to the primary, the top fundraisers, Mount Pleasant Town Councilwoman Kathy Landing and state Rep. Nancy Mace, traded jabs over who was the true Trump conservative.

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That was no surprise to David McIntosh, president of the conservative Club for Growth, which is backing Mace and a handful of other Republicans in Tuesday’s primaries. 

“We will see this solidify support for the president,” McIntosh said. “Elite Republicans say he didn’t communicate well. The broader Republican public distills it all to the nuts and bolts and they say, ‘Yeah, I want law and order. I don’t want to see people shooting police officers.’” 

McIntosh pointed out that all 64 of the candidates Trump has endorsed in the 2020 cycle have won their races. Many of those candidates were incumbents or did not face serious primary challenges. Trump has tweeted his support for former Rep. Karen Handel, who is in a strong position to win the primary for her old seat in Georgia’s 6th District. He has not weighed in on the most competitive of Tuesday’s races. 

Will there be runoffs?

Crowded fields in key races in Georgia and South Carolina will make it hard for candidates to win more than 50 percent of the vote, the threshold in both states to avoid a runoff. 

In South Carolina, Mace and Landing will share the ballot with city business development coordinator Brad Mole and Bikers for Trump founder Chis Cox. 

An April poll of likely GOP primary voters in the district conducted for the Club for Growth had Mace leading Landing, 42 percent to 13 percent, a strong lead but not enough to avoid a June 23 runoff. Cox and Mole were in the single digits. 

In the Georgia Democratic primary to challenge GOP Sen. David Perdue, a poll released last week for WSB-TV had top fundraiser Jon Ossoff, who lost a high-profile 2017 special election in the 6th District, leading with 42 percent, followed by former Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson at 14 percent and Sarah Riggs Amico, the 2018 lieutenant governor nominee, at 9 percent.

A runoff there would be held on Aug. 11.

Pandemic fallout?

Primaries in Georgia and West Virginia were rescheduled from the spring to protect voters from exposure to the coronavirus. 

But that hasn’t dampened voter enthusiasm. With high volumes of people voting early or requesting absentee ballots, turnout in Georgia was on track late last week to shatter state records, even though more than 10 percent of the state’s polling sites had closed, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. 

Democrats will be watching turnout in the Atlanta suburbs, where population shifts in recent years have put two formerly red seats in play. In the 6th District, which Trump carried by a point in 2016, five Republicans are competing to take on freshman Rep. Lucy McBath. That includes Handel, who won a special election for the seat over Ossoff in 2017 only to lose it a year later by 1 point to McBath. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Tilt Democratic. 

There are also crowded primaries on both sides in the 7th District, where GOP Rep. Rob Woodall is retiring. Trump carried the district by 6 points. 

Democrats in the six-way primary have struggled to stand out as the pandemic forced them to conduct mostly virtual campaigns, potentially giving an advantage to candidates with higher profiles.

“It’s hard, I’m not going to lie,” progressive candidate Nabilah Islam told the Journal-Constitution. “We’ve had to be strategic about how we’re reaching out to voters. Election Day will tell if our strategy works, but we’ve been calling, texting and trying to be very present in our community.”

The top fundraiser in the race is university professor Carolyn Bourdeaux, the 2018 nominee who lost to Woodall by just 419 votes. 

On the Republican side, emergency room doctor Rich McCormick, who had struggled to raise money, got a boost after Trump retweeted a video the candidate had posted in which he defended the president’s response to the virus.

As of May 20, McCormick was almost tied with state Sen. Renee Unterman as the top fundraiser in the race. Unterman, whose long career in state politics gave her an early advantage, was forced to take notice, hammering McCormick for alleged voting irregularities when he served in the Marine Corps and questioning whether he voted for Trump in 2016. 

Inside Elections rates the 7th District race a Toss-up.

There are also crowded races for two open GOP seats in Georgia with nine candidates each in the Republican primaries for the 9th District (to replace Rep. Doug Collins) and the 14th (to succeed Rep. Tom Graves). Inside Elections rates both contests Solid Republican.

Does outside spending help?

Most of the outside spending in Tuesday’s races has been concentrated in the Republican primaries

The Club for Growth’s super PAC has spent $675,000 on McCormick’s campaign. It spent  $570,000 on Mace, while the tea party-linked House Freedom Action and Right Women PAC, which supports conservative women whose views align with the House Freedom Caucus, spent a combined $85,000 on Landing.

In Georgia’s 9th District, state Rep. Matt Gurtler attracted almost $750,000 in outside spending from the Club for Growth, Protect Freedom PAC, which invests in “pro-liberty and freedom-minded candidates” in Republican primaries, and a group called Liberty for Us Super PAC, which hasn’t spent on anyone else this cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. A group called Keeping Northeast Georgia Great, a single-candidate group formed to oppose Gurtler, spent $38,000 against him.

Outside groups have also been spending in the Republican primary to challenge Lee in Nevada’s 3rd District.

Super PACs have spent at least $493,000 to support businessman and former pro wrestler Dan Rodimer, or to attack his opponent, onetime state Treasurer Dan Schwartz. 

Two of the three groups spending to help Rodimer timed their efforts in a way that their contributors will not have to be disclosed until after Tuesday’s primary, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The Desert Leadership Fund, which was formed on May 26, has spent nearly $169,000 on mailers split about evenly as pro-Rodimer and anti-Schwartz. The Ending Spending Action Fund has spent another $318,000 and is airing an ad that attacks “Swampy Dan Schwartz” for not being enthusiastic enough about Trump and “wrong on taxes.”

Rodimer has been endorsed by the NRA and the National Right to Life and got $10,000 in contributions from the leadership PAC of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.

Trump carried the 3rd District by 1 point, but it twice backed Democrat Barack Obama before that. Lee won the seat by 9 points in 2018 and Inside Elections rates the November race Likely Democratic. 

Lee had $2 million in her campaign account on May 20, compared with $220,000 for Rodimer and $53,000 for Schwartz.

Republican Karen Handel won the special election in Georgia’s 6th District in 2017, to the dismay of supporters of Jon Ossoff supporters seen here. But Handel lost the seat to Democrat Lucy McBath in 2018 and now is running in a six-person primary Tuesday for a chance at a rematch. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Can repeat candidates do better?

Two Georgia candidates on the ballot Tuesday, Handel and Republican Paul Broun in the 9th District, have been in Congress before. In the 7th, Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux is making her second bid for the seat.

Handel is the top fundraiser in the Republican primary, with $1.4 million raised and $958,000 in the bank as of May 20. Broun, who represented the 10th District for three full terms, trailed four other GOP candidates in fundraising.

State-based analysts told CQ Roll Call that Handel is expected to have an easy time winning the primary, but McBath, who had raised $4.3 million and had almost $3 million left in the bank, will be more formidable this time. That’s compounded by McBath’s position as a leading voice against race-based violence since the 2012 murder of her son. McBath is African American. 

The Democratic Senate primary in West Virginia to pick a challenger to Capito also includes two candidates who were on the ballot in 2018. 

Progressive Paula Jean Swearengin, who was featured in the Netflix documentary “Knock Down the House,” got 30 percent of the vote for her primary challenge to Democratic Sen Joe Manchin III in 2018. And Army veteran Richard Ojeda lost a 2018 House race to Rep. Carol Miller and ran a brief, long-shot bid for president. 

Capito has raised $4.2 million and had $3.1 million on hand as of May 20. Swearengin, the next highest fundraiser, collected $359,000 and had $29,000 in the bank. Trump carried the state with 68 percent of the vote in 2016. Inside Elections rates the race Solid Republican.

Niels Lesniewski and Herb Jackson contributed to this report.

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