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6 things to watch in Tuesday’s primaries

Key races in six states include McConnell challenger, Collins replacement

Updated, 5:05 p.m. | The successor to prison-bound former Rep. Chris Collins and the challenger to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will be decided Tuesday along with nominees for dozens of House seats as six states hold elections.

But it may take several days for votes to be counted as states cope with an expected surge in mail-in ballots because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Elections in Kentucky, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina and Virginia had already been delayed, while South Carolina’s runoffs for state-level offices were always planned for Tuesday. 

In New York, Kentucky and North Carolina, which is hosting a GOP runoff for White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows’ former seat, absentee ballots can be postmarked on election day. 

In North Carolina, those ballots must be received by June 26 to be counted, while that deadline is June 27 in Kentucky and June 30 in New York. Some counties in Kentucky have already said they will not release results until June 30.

In Virginia, which has a handful of competitive House races, absentee ballots must be received by 5 p.m. on primary day, but Republican nominees in some House districts are being chosen at party conventions. 

Here are six things to  watch in Tuesday’s primaries:

1. Booker looks for an upset

In the Democratic primary to take on McConnell in Kentucky, a late outpouring of support for state Rep. Charles Booker, a Black progressive Democrat, has made for a race that Marine veteran and former House candidate Amy McGrath never expected.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is backing McGrath, who had a campaign war chest of $19 million earlier this month. But progressive leaders, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, as well as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, are lining up behind Booker.

If Booker prevails, he will deserve credit for an effective appeal to the primary electorate as the country, and the commonwealth, focus on incidents of police killing African Americans, including in Louisville. Booker’s campaign used McGrath’s answer to a question during their only debate about why she was not out with demonstrators protesting police shootings in TV ads in the closing weeks.

2. Insurgents take on incumbents

Ten of the 12 House Democrats running for reelection in New York City are facing primary challengers, several of whom are well funded.

Rep. Eliot L. Engel’s primary has heated up in recent weeks, with liberal groups and leaders backing his challenger, former middle school principal Jamaal Bowman, who says the House Foreign Affairs chairman has lost touch with the 16th District.

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The New York Times endorsed Bowman and Adem Bunkeddeko, a community organizer who is challenging Rep. Yvette D. Clarke in the 9th District for the second straight cycle. 

House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler and Oversight and Reform Chairwoman Carolyn B. Maloney are also facing primary challengers. (Maloney’s 2018 opponent, Suraj Patel, is running again.) But some Democratic operatives said Engel and Clarke’s primaries are expected to be more closely contested.

In Kentucky, it had appeared earlier this spring that an outsider had a chance to knock out Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie in the 4th District Republican primary.

Lawyer Todd McMurtry briefly began to gain GOP establishment support after Massie forced members back to Capitol Hill in March for a vote on a bipartisan COVID-19 relief package. Massie’s actions led to rebuke on Twitter from President Donald Trump.

Massie has long been unpopular with his more hawkish colleagues, and House Republican Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., even donated to McMurtry. But when McMurtry’s history of racist tweets surfaced, Cheney and others asked for their money back.

The primary between the two men has remained bitter, but a recent Club for Growth PAC poll showed Massie ahead by 66 points.

3. Outside help

Democratic outside groups have been active in Tuesday’s elections, particularly in deep-blue districts where the Democratic primary winners are likely to come to Congress.

In New York’s 17th District, where Democrat Nita M. Lowey is retiring, outside groups, including the Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC, have spent more than $518,000 to support lawyer Mondaire Jones, according to Federal Election Commission filings.

Women VOTE!, the political arm of EMILY’s List, has spent nearly $195,000 to bolster Evelyn Farkas, a former deputy assistant Defense secretary, and $80,000 against lawyer Adam Schleifler, who is self-funding his campaign.

The race to succeed retiring Democratic Rep. José E. Serrano in New York’s 15th District has also attracted outside spending, in part because of a concern that New York City Council Member Rubén Díaz Sr. could win the Democratic primary with a plurality. Díaz has a history of making homophobic remarks and controversial comments. 

Outside groups, including the political arm of the Congressional LGBTQ Equality Caucus, have spent a combined $625,000 against Díaz. Equality PAC, along with BOLD PAC, the Hispanic Caucus’ political arm, and other groups have spent a combined $463,000 to boost New York City Council Member Ritchie Torres, the first openly gay elected official in the Bronx. 

Two other candidates, former New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and state Assemblyman Michael Blake, have benefited from outside spending. Latino Victory Fund has spent $25,000 supporting Mark-Viverito, while The Collective Super PAC, which supports Black candidates, has spent $87,000 backing Blake. 

Outside groups have also played in New York’s 1st District, where Democrats are targeting three-term Republican Lee Zeldin. One outside group launched in early June called Blue Tide NY-1 has spent $169,000 supporting Perry Gershon, a former commercial real estate lender who lost to Zeldin in 2018. 314 Action, which supports candidates with STEM backgrounds, has spent $517,000 to bolster chemistry professor Nancy Goroff.

The group has also been involved in a Democratic primary in Virginia’s 5th District, where Democrats hope to capitalize on internal strife among area Republicans after libertarian-leaning Rep. Denver Riggleman lost the GOP nomination to Christian conservative Bob Good at a convention last week. 

The four Democrats on the ballot are moderates with attention-grabbing résumés, so outside spending could help set the winner apart. 314 Action has spent $307,000 to support doctor and health policy professor Cameron Webb. Women Vote! has spent almost $498,000 on Marine veteran Claire Russo. Vote Vets and VoteVets Action Fund has spent a combined $117,000 on RD Huffstetler, who is also a retired Marine. 

In the GOP runoff in North Carolina’s 11th District, businesswoman Lynda Bennett received a boost from the House Freedom Fund in her bid to succeed Meadows. The fund, the political arm of the hard-line conservative Freedom Caucus that Meadows once led, and the tea party-aligned House Freedom Action have spent more than $1 million to help Bennett win the GOP nomination.  The group Fix Congress Now! spent $160,000 against her.

Protect Freedom PAC spent $530,000 on behalf of her 24-year-old opponent, Madison Cawthorn, airing an ad saying Bennett was a “Never Trumper” in 2016. House Freedom Action spent $309,000 on ads opposing Cawthorn.

4. GOP women face primary test 

Republican women looking to increase their ranks in the House are also facing primaries Tuesday. 

Former GOP Rep. Claudia Tenney is expected to win the nomination in New York’s 22nd District, where she’s looking for a rematch against freshman Democrat Anthony Brindisi. And in New York’s 11th, GOP leaders have coalesced around state Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis to take on Democratic Rep. Max Rose. 

Trump has endorsed both women, but the National Rifle Association recently backed former prosecutor Joe Caldarera over Malliotakis, according to the New York Post.

North Carolina’s 11th District has never voted to send a woman to Washington, but that could change if Bennett wins the runoff against Cawthorn. Bennett was the top vote-getter in a 12-candidate primary on March 3, but fell short of the 30 percent needed to secure the nomination outright. 

5. Potential rematches 

Tenney isn’t the only candidate looking for a rematch. In New York’s 24th District, 2018 Democratic nominee Dana Balter is hoping to take on GOP Rep. John Katko, a top Democratic target. But first she has to defeat Navy veteran Francis Conole in the Democratic primary. 

Balter could benefit from higher name recognition from her 2018 run, and she also has a financial advantage with $1.3 million on hand compared to Conole’s $176,000 as of June 3. VoteVets has spent more than $218,000 boosting Conole.

And in Virginia’s 2nd District, former GOP Rep. Scott Taylor is seeking a rematch against Democrat Elaine Luria, who unseated him by 2 points in 2018 after Taylor’s campaign was caught up in a signature forgery scandal. But first he has to face fellow Republicans Ben Loyola and Jarome Ball on Tuesday. 

6. Voters pick Collins replacement 

Voters in New York’s 27th District face a special election Tuesday to replace Collins, whose pandemic-delayed 26-month prison sentence for insider trading is due to start in August. The seat is expected to stay in Republican hands, since Trump carried it by 25 points in 2016. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Solid Republican.

Local party leaders picked state Sen. Chris Jacobs as the GOP nominee for the special election. Jacobs is personally wealthy and loaned his campaign $446,000. He faces Democrat Nate McMurray, a former town supervisor who nearly defeated Collins in 2018.

Both McMurray and Jacobs are also on Tuesday’s primary ballot for the full term. Jacobs has some competition with former Erie County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw and lawyer Beth Parlato also running in the GOP primary. 

Jacobs’ opponents recently called on him to drop out of the race after the Erie County district attorney received a complaint alleging he committed voter fraud. The allegations include registering to vote in the district before he actually owned a home there and falsely stating his home in the district was his primary residence, according to Buffalo CBS affiliate WIVB.

Jacobs called the complaint “a desperate political stunt.” On Friday evening, Erie County DA John Flynn said he would not pursue criminal charges after looking into the complaint, The Buffalo News reported.

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