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Primary voters head to the polls in Kentucky, New York and Virginia on Tuesday in what will be one of the bigger tests this election cycle of the divides inside the Democratic Party.
In New York’s House races, several Democratic incumbents are facing challenges from the left, just as 10-term Rep. Joe Crowley did two years ago when he was knocked out in the primary by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But unlike in that race, some of the progressive challengers in this round of primaries are receiving the support of big names in the Democratic Party, including from Ocasio-Cortez herself, as they seek to unseat some longtime representatives.
Both Kentucky and New York are voting after previously postponing elections because of the pandemic. Both states received waivers from the Democratic National Committee to hold their presidential primaries after the original June 9 deadline and will not have to forfeit any of their delegates for holding late primaries.
Virginia will be holding congressional primaries, while Mississippi and North Carolina hold run-off elections for House seats, including one to fill now-White House chief of staff Mark Meadows’ seat.
Here are some of the big races to watch.
Amy McGrath, a former Marine fighter pilot who lost a widely covered House race in 2018 by less than 10,000 votes, was once seen as the inevitable Democratic candidate to challenge Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell because of her national name recognition and record-breaking fundraising. But she is now facing a serious challenger in the primary.
In her campaign, McGrath has tried to position herself as a more moderate candidate as she prepared to take on one of the most powerful Republicans in the country for a seat representing a deep red state. In that effort, one of her biggest missteps was in the first days of her campaign last summer, when she said she would have voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, drawing criticism from some parts of the Democratic base. She quickly walked the comment back.
Still, McGrath was thought to be a shoe-in for the Democratic ticket, outraising and outspending the other primary contenders many times over. But in recent weeks, state Rep. Charles Booker has gained momentum coming from the left, getting endorsements from Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Ocasio-Cortez. In a recent Data for Progress poll, Booker held an 8-point lead over McGrath.
Booker, who is black, currently represents Louisville, and in the weeks since Breonna Taylor was killed there by police, he has been very vocal at protests, raising his profile in the final stretch of the primary.
McGrath still has a significant fundraising advantage. She’s raised nearly $41 million, eclipsing McConnell’s $32 million, according to the latest round of fundraising reports at the beginning of June. Those reports showed Booker had raised less than $1 million, though some reporting suggests he has raised three times as much since then. The seat for which they’re competing is rated as likely Republican by the Cook Political Report, but races against the sitting majority leader always get a lot of outside attention and money.
If Booker pulls off an upset, he’ll have to make up a lot of fundraising ground to compete with McConnell’s $15 million cash on hand. Democratic activists have known this race would be an uphill battle, but they feel energized after the governor’s race last year, when Democrat Andy Beshear ousted Republican incumbent Gov. Matt Bevin.
In a local but symbolic race, the Republican speaker of the Kentucky House of Representatives, David Osborne, is facing a primary challenge from teacher-turned-activist Tiffany Dunn, who voted for Bevin in 2016 and then led protests against him for what she called his anti-public education positions.
Recent years have proven education to be a major motivation for Kentucky voters and shown how powerful teachers can be as an electoral force — they are a large part of why Beshear defeated Bevin. If Osborne wins, it will send a shock wave through establishment leadership in the state. The race also shows that teachers are not just Democratic voters; they are issue voters.
The race to fill White House chief of staff Mark Meadows’ vacated seat representing North Carolina’s 11th District is rated “safe Republican” by Cook Political Report, so whoever wins the Republican primary has a good chance of winning the seat come November.
Lynda Bennett, vice chair of the local GOP, has been backed by Trump, Meadows and the Freedom Caucus. She faces Madison Cawthorn, a real estate investor and motivational speaker who talks about overcoming struggles including a car accident that left him paralyzed.
If Bennett wins, she will join a small but potentially growing faction of Republican women in the House. Currently just 13 women sit on the Republican side of the aisle, of whom two are retiring. But a record-setting 223 Republican women have filed to run for House seats in 2020 so far, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers. That’s almost 100 more than a record 133 set in 2010. So far, 45 have won their primary races. On the Democratic side, 350 women filed to run for the House, and so far 104 have won their primaries.
There are several competitive Democratic primary races for safely Democratic House seats in New York City, where a primary win all but guarantees a win in November. It’s a test of the power of incumbency and also of the left flank of the Democratic Party.
There are also two Republican primary races to watch in New York, both in districts that the Cook Political Report rates as toss ups in November, and both currently represented by freshman Democrats who in 2018 flipped seats in districts Trump won in 2016.
Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel, backed by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, is being challenged from the left by Jamaal Bowman, a school principal who has been backed by Warren and Ocasio-Cortez, among others.
Engel has served in Congress for more than 30 years but has been criticized lately for not doing enough for his district. At a racial justice rally earlier this year, Engel, who represents a diverse district that includes part of the Bronx, was reportedly overheard saying: “If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care.”
If he loses, Engel will be the fourth House incumbent this year to lose in a primary, behind Democrat Dan Lipinski of Illinois and Republicans Steve King of Iowa and Denver Riggleman of Virginia.
In a rematch of the 2018 primary, Rep. Yvette Clarke is being challenged by Adem Bunkeddeko, a community activist and the son of Ugandan refugees, who won 47 percent of the primary vote in 2018 and has the endorsement of the New York Times. Also looking to unseat Clarke in the primary are Isiah James, an Army vet and Democratic socialist, and council member Chaim Deutsch, who is a big supporter of the police. Last time this was a one-on-one race so Clarke may benefit from challengers that split the vote.
While Ocasio-Cortez quickly became one of the most publicly visible members of the House after her primary upset in 2018, she has also faced some criticism about her priorities — whether she focuses too much on raising her national profile and not enough on representing her district. Ocasio-Cortez, who won her seat by challenging an incumbent Democrat, is being challenged now by former CNBC anchor Michelle Caruso-Cabrera. While Ocasio-Cortez is expected to win — she’s raised more than $10 million versus Caruso-Cabrera’s nearly $2 million — her vote margins will offer a telling sign of how her constituents feel about the job she’s been doing in the Capitol.
Seven powerhouse candidates are competing to replace retiring Rep. Nita Lowey in New York’s 17th District. In a battle of the ex-Washington insiders, former Justice Department official Mondaire Jones, who has the endorsement of the New York Times and the Human Rights Campaign, is up against former Defense official Evelyn Farkas, who worked on Ukraine and Russia policy and is backed by former Secretary of State John Kerry and former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta; Asha Castleberry-Hernandez, who served as a foreign policy advisor on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign; Adam Schleifer, a former assistant U.S. attorney; and Allison Fine, former chair of NARAL Pro-Choice America. State Sen. David Carlucci and State Assemblyman David Buchwald are also competing for the Democratic nomination in the district rated by the Cook Political Report as “solid Democrat.”
A recent Data for Progress poll found a virtual four-way tie for the nomination between Schleifer, Carlucci, Farkas and Jones. Schleifer has raised almost $4.5 million as of June 3 — more than all his opponents’ combined fundraising.
NEW YORK, NY – FEBRUARY 14: New York City Councilman Ruben Diaz Sr. leads a rally outside his office to protest his suspension from a city council committee for making comments that many believed were homophobic, in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)
In the race to replace retiring Democratic Rep. Jose Serrano, New York City Councilman Ritchie Torres, who has the New York Times’ endorsement, is leading a long list of candidates. The Times’ editorial board notes in its endorsement for Torres that one of the dozen Democratic candidates running has spent much of his political career fighting against equal rights for women and gay people, a tough message for the party in 2020. And yet, amid a deep field of more liberal contenders dividing up the mainstream vote, that candidate — Rubén Díaz Sr. — is the frontrunner.
New York’s 15th District is the most Democratic district in the country, which means whoever wins the primary is almost certain to win in November. If he wins, Díaz would become one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress.
The winner of this New York Republican primary will be taking on freshman Rep. Max Rose in November. The primary is between assembly member Nicole Malliotakis and former Brooklyn assistant district attorney Joseph Caldarera. The winner of the Republican nomination in this Staten Island district will likely be boosted with Trump again on the ticket, since he won the district by almost 10 points in 2016 and the Republican incumbent for the House seat was reelected that year.
Freshman Democratic Rep. Anthony Brindisi will likely face former Rep. Claudia Tenney in November. She is running to take back the seat Brindisi won by less than two points in 2018, in a district Trump won by 15.5 points two years earlier. With Trump back on the ballot, a Republican has a good chance of winning this toss-up race, but Tenney still has to fend off a primary challenge from George Phillips, the man she beat in the 2016 primary.
There are two more New York congressional districts won by Trump in 2016 that are now represented by Democrats and are leaning Democrat this year, according to Cook Political Report.
One is New York’s 18th District, where incumbent Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney is unopposed in the Democratic primary. In November, he’ll face investment banker Chele Farley, who is also unopposed in the Republican primary. Trump won the district by 1.9 points in 2016. Maloney won the district by double digits in 2016 and 2018, and is expected to win the seat again.
Freshman Democratic Rep. Anthony Delgado won New York’s 19th District by 5.8 points in 2018, beating out the Republican incumbent. Trump won the district by 6.8 points in 2016 when Republican John Faso won the House seat. In this year’s Republican primary, fashion designer Ola Hawatmeh faces attorney and Army veteran Kyle Van De Water. This is a lean Democrat seat in November.
In Virginia, two districts where Trump won in 2016 will on Tuesday pick the Republican nominees who will take on incumbent freshman Democrats who won in the 2018 blue wave. Both of these seats have been rated toss ups by the Cook Political Report.
First-term Rep. Elaine Luria, a Navy veteran, doesn’t know which of the three Republicans in Tuesday’s primary she’ll face in November, but one thing is certain: the GOP nominee will be a Navy veteran, too. Former Rep. Scott Taylor, who served one term before Luria beat him in 2018 by less than 3 points, is hoping for a rematch in November. In the Republican primary, he’s facing Jarome Bell and Ben Layola, a Cuban-born small business owner who previously lost a state Senate race against now-Gov. Ralph Northam. Trump won this district in 2016 by just more than 3 points.
Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger beat out the incumbent Tea Party-backed candidate in Virginia’s 7th District by 2 points in 2018 — an 8-point swing from when Trump won the district in 2016. Now six Republicans are vying to take on the CIA veteran in November, five of whom are veterans and two currently serve in the state assembly.
Republicans ousted incumbent Rep. Denver Riggleman in a party convention last week, instead choosing Bob Good, former associate athletic director at Liberty University.
The Democratic primary for this seat features four candidates, including: Roger Dean Huffstetler, a Marine veteran who deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan and now leads a technology startup; John Lesinski, a Marine veteran and commercial real estate developer who’s held local elected office; Claire Russo, a Marine veteran who deployed to Iraq and later volunteered with the Army in Afghanistan; and Cameron Webb, a doctor, lawyer, and former White House fellow in the Obama administration.
A handful of states will hold presidential primaries later this summer, including Connecticut, which will hold its primary on August 11, just six days before the Democratic National Convention is scheduled to begin. Former Vice President Joe Biden already has the delegates to win the nomination, and has been running unopposed since Sanders dropped out in April.
Tuesday’s primaries will almost serve as a sort of mini-referendum on the Democratic Party, giving them a glimpse into which voters, from where along the political spectrum, are most motivated this year. The results could offer insight that will help candidates across the country shape their messaging in order to turn out base voters in November.
Matt Loffman is the PBS NewsHour's Deputy Senior Politics Producer
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