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Primary takeaways: How to deal with Trump; and the Texas blues

One Trump target loses, the other wins in South Carolina

Republican state Rep. Russell Fry, who won a House primary Tuesday, speaks in March at a rally with former President Donald Trump at Florence Regional Airport in Florence, S.C.
Republican state Rep. Russell Fry, who won a House primary Tuesday, speaks in March at a rally with former President Donald Trump at Florence Regional Airport in Florence, S.C. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

Rep. Nancy Mace became the latest Capitol Hill Republican to overcome sustained and personal attacks from former President Donald Trump when she won a closely watched primary against a Trump-backed challenger in a coastal South Carolina district Tuesday. 

But just up the coast, one of her fellow Republicans and Trump targets, Rep. Tom Rice, was soundly defeated. Trump’s endorsed candidate for U.S. Senate in Nevada also beat his closest challenger in an eight-way primary by more than 20 points.

On the Democratic side, a progressive challenge to the dean of Nevada’s House delegation fizzled. But in a special election in South Texas, the party lost a seat it won by a 13-point margin in 2020, possibly foreshadowing more losses to come.

Here are several takeaways from those races:

Testing the Trump limit  

Mace’s win against challenger Katie Arrington in the 1st District Republican primary could provide a path for Republicans looking to distance themselves from the former president, but it also came as her more conservative colleague, Rice, lost his primary to state Rep. Russell Fry in the 7th District. 

A key difference: Mace, one of Trump’s harshest detractors in the aftermath of the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol, quickly tempered her criticism and sought to ingratiate herself with the president’s supporters. Rice, by contrast, voted to impeach Trump and stood by that decision even in the face of Trump’s attacks. 

The results demonstrate that even as some of his chosen candidates lose at the polls, Trump still has sway over a GOP that has displayed little appetite for holding him accountable for his false claims that the 2020 election was stolen. 

Mace attracted Trump’s fury when she went on CNN on Jan. 7, 2021, to declare that his incitement of the riot the day before had “wiped out” his legacy. But she struck a different note in her campaign. As Trump attacked her as “crazy” and a “terrible person,” she responded with a platform that echoed the “America First” policies that he popularized. She also touted her work to support him, starting with his 2016 campaign. 

As voters headed to the polls this week, she told an NBC News correspondent that Trump could “play whatever role he wants to” in the GOP. 

She got 53 percent of the vote to Arrington’s 45 percent. 

Her strategy hewed closely to a playbook adopted by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp when he ignored vicious attacks from Trump to win his March primary in the biggest electoral loss for the former president so far this cycle. 

It also stood in stark contrast to Rice, who said in the run-up to Tuesday’s primary that if he lost his seat because of his impeachment vote he would not regret it and would “wear it like a badge.”

He got only 25 percent of the vote. Fry, a state lawmaker, got 51 percent — enough to clear the majority threshold to avoid a runoff in the seven-candidate field. 

Mace, who voted to certify the 2020 elections but did not vote for impeachment or for the bipartisan commission to investigate the assault on the Capitol, also attracted help from influential outside groups who were able to amplify her message with hundreds of thousands of dollars in advertising that focused on her conservative credentials. They also attacked Arrington for voting to increase taxes while she was a state legislator, including on a 2017 roads improvement bill that raised the state’s gas taxes for the first time in 30 years. 

In the end, Trump congratulated Mace on his social media platform, Truth Social, predicting that she would have no problem defeating Democratic nominee Annie Andrews in November. 

Gaining a foothold in South Texas

Mayra Flores, the daughter of Mexican immigrants who argued that Democrats had failed to show they cared about voters in her district, won the special election for Texas’ 34th District, with 51 percent to 43 percent for Democrat Dan Sanchez.  

Her victory in a district that Democrat Filemon Vela won easily in 2020 cut the net number of seats Republicans need to pick up in November to take control of the House from five to four. Vela resigned in March to join the Akin Gump lobbying firm. 

Republicans argued that Flores’ win demonstrated their momentum heading into the midterms. The district is one of five South Texas open seats and districts held by Democrats the GOP has targeted for a takeover, aided by increased support from Latino voters who have traditionally voted for Democrats. 

Flores will only hold the seat for a matter of months before she has to run again in November against Democratic Rep. Vicente Gonzalez in a redrawn district that favors Democrats. That race had been rated Solid Democratic by Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales, but the rating was changed to Likely Democratic Wednesday after Flores’ win.

Republican outside groups spent more than three times as much on the race as Democratic groups, and in a Twitter post Tuesday, Sanchez blamed his loss in part on “little to no support from the National Democratic Party and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.” 

Jim Kessler, a prominent strategist with the center-left Third Way, wrote on Twitter that the race demonstrated that “Democrats should take their Latino playbook and toss it in the garbage.” And Chuck Rocha, the senior campaign adviser to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign, responded that he “TOTALLY” agreed.

But national Democrats brushed off those concerns, saying it would have been a waste of money to invest in a special election to hold the seat for a matter of months. In November, they plan to attack Flores as an extremist who hyped the QAnon conspiracy theory, and that she spread misinformation about COVID-19.

“The only thing the NRCC proved last night is that they can barely get their MAGA Republican candidates across the finish line when they outspend the Democrat 20-to-1 and if only 7 percent of the electorate turns out to vote,” said Monica Robinson, a spokeswoman for the DCCC. “This seat is a rental for Republicans and we look forward to welcoming Vicente Gonzalez back to Congress this fall.”

Showing establishment strength 

The odds were stacked against any real upsets in the Nevada primaries, and there weren’t any, but the margin of victory for Democratic Rep. Dina Titus in her primary against challenger Amy Vilela appears to highlight the enduring strength of the Nevada Democratic establishment and Culinary Workers Union Local 226.

The union and Nevada Democratic Victory campaigned for Titus as she faces reelection in a new district, and overcame a challenger who got considerable buzz thanks to endorsements from Sanders and the group Our Revolution. Titus cruised to victory, securing more than 82 percent of the vote.

Targeting ‘hard-right’ nominees

In the Nevada Senate race, former Attorney General Adam Laxalt had won Trump’s endorsement after filing lawsuits that tried to cast doubt on the 2020 elections, including one against Nevada’s secretary of state for not doing enough to keep noncitizens from voting. Despite a burst of late attention for Purple Heart recipient Sam Brown in the race, Laxalt finished with 56 percent to Brown’s 34 percent, with six other candidates and “none of these candidates” sharing the rest.

Laxalt will face Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, the most vulnerable senator on the ballot this year, and the Senate Democrats’ campaign committee wasted no time charging the Republican nominee in a statement with being “a sleazy corrupt politician” who had “fully embraced Trump’s toxic election lies.”

Opening the Senate floor Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., continued on that theme, talking about primary wins by a number of “hard-right candidates who believe the last presidential election was stolen.” He specifically cited Jim Marchant, the GOP candidate for Nevada secretary of state.

Highlighting Republicans who backed failed legal challenges and made false claims seeking to toss out the 2020 election results will be a key theme for Democrats heading toward November, and Marchant may be a bit of a poster child. He was the GOP nominee in the 2020 House race in Nevada’s 4th District. Rep. Steven Horsford won that contest by almost 5 points, but Marchant has previously claimed without evidence that Nevada Democrats somehow stole that election. And Marchant’s endorsers in his 2022 race include Trump and Mike Lindell, the founder of MyPillow who has advanced baseless conspiracy theories about voting machines.

“Democracy is at risk if we elevate individuals who don’t believe in the sanctity of elections,” Schumer said Wednesday. “That is the road to authoritarianism.”

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