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Seven questions about Tuesday’s primaries in seven states

Nominees will be picked in California, Iowa, Mississippi, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico and South Dakota

Incumbents facing noteworthy primary challenges on Tuesday include, from left, Republican Reps. David Valadao and Young Kim of California and Democratic Rep. Donald M. Payne Jr. of New Jersey.
Incumbents facing noteworthy primary challenges on Tuesday include, from left, Republican Reps. David Valadao and Young Kim of California and Democratic Rep. Donald M. Payne Jr. of New Jersey. (Bill Clark and Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photos)

Primaries in multiple states on Tuesday will set matchups for the fall and could end the careers of some incumbents. Here are some key questions that will be answered:

1. Who fills Nunes’ seat?

Connie Conway, a former Tulare County supervisor and Republican leader in the state Assembly, is heavily favored to win the special election in California’s 22nd District for the remainder of former GOP Rep. Devin Nunes’ term. She faces Democrat Lourin Hubbard, a state water department operations manager. 

The special election is happening the same day as primaries for the next Congress, but neither Conway nor Hubbard is running. And the 22nd District, now a GOP stronghold, will look different in November, as reliably Republican areas have been parceled out and the new seat would have backed President Joe Biden over then-President Donald Trump by 13 points. 

Conway made it clear that a victory on Tuesday would lead to an abbreviated stay in Congress. “I didn’t always have a desire to run, to serve in Congress,” she said during a recent interview. “It was hard for people to grasp: ‘Why are you only running for six months?’ If there was a place to be, Congressman Nunes would have stayed and he would be there.”

Nunes resigned on Jan. 3 to run a new Trump media venture.  

Conway has been a fixture in California Republican circles, and her relationships helped her nab some key endorsements, including from Trump and  House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. Though she said she is “appreciative” of the support, she chose not to endorse any of the Republicans running in the competitive primary on Tuesday for a full term representing the new 22nd District. 

“I want everybody to like me,” she said. “So if I pick your team, then the other team might not like me, so, I’m not endorsing. I’m staying out.”

2. Are Valadao, Kim and Payne in trouble?

Running in that competitive 22nd District primary is Rep. David Valadao, one of 10 Republicans to vote for Trump’s impeachment. He may not be getting an endorsement from Conway, but he’s benefiting from the assistance of outside groups, including the Congressional Leadership Fund super PAC. Valadao, who currently represents California’s 21st District, faces three opponents in Tuesday’s all-party primary. The top two will advance to the general election in November. 

Democrats are targeting the district as a potential pickup opportunity, with state Assemblyman Rudy Salas expected to make it into the top two. House Majority PAC, the leading super PAC for House Democrats, has already spent $276,000 to boost Salas. Outside spending in the new 22nd District has topped $1.1 million already, and the party committees and outside groups are planning to spend big there in the fall. 

That is, so long as Valadao clears the top two. His biggest challenge on the GOP side likely comes from military veteran Chris Mathys, who bills himself as more conservative. The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC allied with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, disclosed spending nearly $792,000 since May 18 to help Valadao and oppose Mathys.

Mathys, who ran in the primary in 2020 in New Mexico’s 2nd District, held about $300,000 cash on hand, with most of that coming from candidate loans, as of May 18. Valadao had $1.6 million in his campaign account, according to federal disclosures. Should Valadao not make the cut, Republicans could abandon the race for November. 

Another California Republican trying to avoid being shut out of the November race is Rep. Young Kim. She has been spending big in recent weeks to fend off fellow Republican Greg Raths, a former Mission Viejo city councilmember, in the 40th District. Democrat Asif Mahmood, who held $1.3 million cash on hand as of May 18, is expected to make the top two. 

The Congressional Leadership Fund and other outside groups have rushed to Kim’s rescue, and outside spending was approaching $1.1 million as of late last week. Kim held $2.7 million in her campaign account as of May 18, while Raths had less than $90,000. 

On the other side of the country, Rep. Donald M. Payne Jr., D-N.J., faces political organizer Imani Oakley, who outraised him in one quarter last year, sparking the incumbent to step up his campaign and fundraising efforts compared to previous cycles.

Through May 18, Payne had raised $947,000, more than double the $426,000 Oakley’s campaign had brought in. A third candidate in the race, Akil Khalfani, did not report any fundraising. 

Payne also lined up endorsements from members of the New Jersey delegation and other progressives, including Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal, of Washington state, and the New Jersey Working Families Party. House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn campaigned for Payne in Newark on Thursday. 

3. Will Jersey go for juniors?

Elsewhere in New Jersey, voters will decide if they will pick a pair of Juniors as general election nominees in contests that could show the power of strong name ID. 

In the 7th District, Tom Kean Jr., the former state Senate Republican leader and son of the state’s former governor, is seeking a rematch with Democratic Rep. Tom Malinowski, one of the most vulnerable incumbents up for reelection. For that to happen, Kean must beat six other Republicans, including some who argue he is not conservative enough. 

While Kean trails Malinowski in fundraising, he’s outraised all of his primary opponents, bringing in $2.2 million, with $1.2 million on hand as of May 18. Inside Elections rates the November race a Toss-up. 

In the 8th District, Rob Menendez, the son of Sen. Bob Menendez, is running for the Democratic nomination after Rep. Albio Sires said he would retire at the end of this session. Menendez, who had raised more than $1 million through May 18,  faces David Ocampo Grajales and Ane Roseborough-Eberhard, who had not disclosed any fundraising. The state’s Democratic establishment has backed Menendez. 

Protect Our Future, a super PAC funded in part by cryptocurrency billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried, reported May 31 it was spending $250,000 on digital ads to support Menendez.

4. Will Republicans pay for backing Jan. 6 commission?

South Dakota GOP Rep. Dusty Johnson faces a primary from his right from state Rep. Taffy Howard for not being vigorous enough in his support for Trump. 

Howard is an Air Force veteran who has sometimes clashed with top state Republicans, including Gov. Kristi Noem, over government spending. She has also championed Trump’s baseless election fraud claims in the state legislature and attacked Johnson for voting to certify electoral votes on Jan. 6, 2021. 

Johnson had raised $1.9 million to Howard’s  $310,000 as of May 18, and the incumbent had $2.5 million in the bank. But just in the last two weeks, outside groups have poured money into direct mail, text messaging and TV and radio ads, disclosures with the Federal Election Commission show. Helping Johnson are the Defending Main Street PAC, which supports traditional conservatives, and American Dream Federal Action Committee, a super PAC solely funded by cryptocurrency billionaire Ryan Salame. Combined, they’ve spent $365,000 to support Johnson or attack Howard. Meanwhile, the far-right Drain the DC Swamp PAC and Freedom’s Action PAC spent $552,000 to boost Howard’s campaign. 

Drain the Swamp’s ad against Johnson calls him a “swamper” who “denies that the Communists stole the election from President Trump.” It attacks Johnson for attending Biden’s inauguration and says he “voted to investigate President Donald Trump and patriotic Americans,” an apparent reference to his vote for an independent commission to investigate the Jan. 6 insurrection.

The winner is likely going to Congress, with the race in November rated Solid Republican by Inside Elections.

In Mississippi, meanwhile, 3rd District Rep. Michael Guest has attracted two challengers who are also centering their campaigns on baseless claims of election irregularities. Guest, a former prosecutor, is the only Republican in the state delegation who voted for the Jan 6 commission. Navy veteran Michael Cassidy, the only challenger to report any fundraising to the Federal Election Commission, is working with former Trump adviser Matt Braynard, a prominent promoter of false fraud claims and defender of those jailed for storming the Capitol on Jan. 6. Braynard’s firm, External Affairs Inc., has received $18,000 in consulting fees from Cassidy’s campaign. Through May 18, Cassidy has raised $261,000 to Guest’s $454,000. Shuwaski Young, who worked on campaigns for former President Barack Obama and former Sen. Hillary Clinton, is running unopposed in the Democratic primary, but the race in November is rated Solid Republican by Inside Elections.

5. Who’ll try to stop Zinke’s comeback?

Montana holds primaries for two House seats after gaining one through reapportionment.

With incumbent GOP Rep. Matt Rosendale vying in the 2nd District, a top contender for the new seat in the 1st District is former Rep. Ryan Zinke, who served as Trump’s Interior secretary. He faces four other Republicans in the primary.

Zinke has outraised his opponents, bringing in $2.9 million, and was named to the National Republican Campaign Committee’s “Young Guns” program. But the former lawmaker has faced questions about where he lives. His wife owns a home in Santa Barbara, Calif., which Politico reported she designated as her primary residence

Zinke also faces ethical questions. The Interior Department inspector general found that he “misused his official position” by supporting a project that could help a foundation he started with his wife. Zinke said he would resign from Trump’s Cabinet in late 2018 as that project and his department’s travel policies came under scrutiny. 

“Flying high on the taxpayer dime isn’t cowboy, it’s California,” state Sen. Al Olszewski, Zinke’s main primary rival, said in a recent ad.

Zinke’s Supporting and Electing American Leaders Political Action Committee has also raised questions, as its fundraising suggests it supports military veterans, but a CQ Roll Call analysis found that nearly a quarter of candidates to whom the group gave money did not serve in the military. 

Three Democrats are seeking their party’s nomination in the 1st District: nonprofit executive Cora Neumann, attorney Monica Tranel and former state Rep. Tom Winter. The seat, which covers the western part of the state, is home to the state’s university towns, which could help Democrats’ chances of winning, but Inside Elections rates the race as Likely Republican.

6. Can Finkenauer make it?

Former Iowa Democratic Rep. Abby Finkenauer, who lost her seat in 2020, is seeking a return to Capitol Hill — but in the Senate. Her first step to taking on longtime GOP Sen. Charles E. Grassley would be winning her party’s primary Tuesday, and retired Adm. Michael Franken seems to be tough competition. Finkenauer had raised $3.7 million, with $560,000 on hand, as of May 18, while Franken had raised $2.9 million, with $250,000 on hand. Grassley had more than $4.3 million in the bank. Recent polling showed Finkenauer and Franken essentially tied in the primary. The outlook for the Democratic nominee may be bleak, no matter who wins: Inside Elections rates the race in November as Solid Republican.

7. How will battleground races line up?

California, Iowa and New Mexico will feature some of the nation’s signature battleground House races in November, and the primaries Tuesday will offer a better sense of the dynamics in those contests and the threats to vulnerable incumbents. 

Iowa’s 3rd District: Three Republicans have lined up for the chance to challenge Democratic Rep. Cindy Axne, one of CQ Roll Call’s most vulnerable incumbents this cycle. Fundraising on the Republican side has been lackluster compared with that of Axne, who held $2.8 million as of May 18. State Sen. Zach Nunn had about $225,000 on hand; insurance executive and political newcomer Nicole Hasso held $100,000; and business owner Gary Leffler reported no campaign cash, according to FEC records. Republicans say Nunn and Hasso would both offer the party a good shot at winning the seat, and they expect the fundraising, and outside group spending, to pick up toward fall. Axne has no primary opponent. 

New Mexico’s 2nd District: Democrats hope New Mexico’s new congressional map will help them win back the 2nd District from GOP Rep. Yvette Herrell, who flipped it in 2020 under lines that were slightly more favorable to Republicans. 

Progressive former Las Cruces City Councilor Gabriel Vasquez has endorsements from prominent Democrats, including Sen. Martin Heinrich, for whom he once worked as an aide. Vasquez raised $777,000 and had $378,000 left in the bank, compared to $65,000 raised and $16,000 on hand for physician and labor leader Darshan Patel, the other Democrat in the race. Herrell, who is unopposed in her primary, is headed to the Toss-up race in November with $1.5 million on hand. 

California Toss-ups: GOP Reps. Mike Garcia, Michelle Steel and Valadao are all in races currently rated Toss-up by Inside Elections. While the field is crowded, Garcia may well face Democrat Christy Smith, a former member of the state assembly who lost both a special and a general election to Garcia in 2020. In its new configuration, Biden would have won the district by more than 12 points in 2020. In California’s new 45th District, Steel and Democrat Jay Chen are expected to face off in the general election in a race that both parties plan to prioritize. Biden would have won it by 6 points in 2020.

“California offers major pick-up opportunities for House Democrats,” said Maddy Mundy of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. 

Porter targeted: Republicans say they, too, see opportunities in the state and are targeting Democratic Rep. Katie Porter, a fundraising powerhouse who held $18.7 million on hand as of May 18. She’s expected to easily clinch one of the two top spots in Tuesday’s all-party 47th District primary. Republicans expect Scott Baugh, who is in the National Republican Congressional Committee’s Young Guns program, which offers extra help to candidates, to make it as well. Baugh had about $1.1 million as of May 18.
Republicans’ other Young Gun candidate in California is John Duarte, who is running in an open seat race for California’s 13th District, which Inside Elections rates as Likely Democratic. Duarte likely will face either business owner Phil Arballo or state Assembly member Adam Gray, who are both Democrats.

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