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Sessions fights for old Senate seat in Alabama, and other races to watch

Alabama, Maine and Texas will be voting Tuesday on a couple key Senate races, along with some House races, and big-ticket bond issues in Maine will be the first test at the ballot box of how voters feel about government spending amid the pandemic.

Here are the races to watch:

Sessions fights for his old Senate seat in Alabama GOP runoff

Jeff Sessions is hoping to regain the seat he held for 20 years before stepping down in 2017 to serve as President Donald Trump’s attorney general, a position he was pushed out of 18 months later. In the Republican runoff, he’s facing former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville, who finished 2 points ahead of Sessions in the March 3 primary that triggered this runoff, which has been pushed back more than three months because of the pandemic.

In a recent Auburn University poll, Sessions trailed among Republican voters by double digits. Thirty-one percent of GOP voters said they support Sessions, exactly the same level of support he got in the March primary. Tuberville, meanwhile, has gone from 33 percent in the primary to 47 percent support ahead of the runoff, according to the poll. But 22 percent of GOP voters are still undecided.

Since the primary, the war of words between Sessions and Trump, who has actively endorsed Tuberbille, has escalated, with Trump continuing to publicly ridicule the man who was the first sitting senator to endorse him in 2016. On Saturday, Trump tweeted, “Jeff Sessions is a disaster who has let us all down. We don’t want him back in Washington!” Sessions dismissed Trump’s comments as “juvenile insults” in his own tweet, tellingTrump that “Alabama does not take orders from Washington.”

Trump continued his attacks Monday night during a campaign call with Tuberville, saying he made a “mistake” naming Sessions as his attorney general. “He had his chance and he blew it,” Trump said, while criticizing Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation, according to AL.com. “Jeff didn’t have the courage to stay there. He didn’t know about Russia. He had nothing to do, but he immediately ran for the hills.”

Amid the attacks, Sessions is walking a tightrope. He can’t afford to alienate Trump voters. Currently more than half of Alabama voters — and not just Republicans — approve of the job Trump is doing as president, according to the Auburn University poll. Sessions was careful during a Fox News interview Monday night to acknowledge the president “gets to express” his “strong feelings” about the race. But at the same time, Sessions said his campaign is “catching fire” and has momentum against Tuberville, who he essentially accused of being a carpetbagger from Florida who doesn’t support the Trump agenda in the way Sessions does. He also tried to further draw a distinction between Tuberville and Trump, saying, “[Tuberville’s] name is going to be on the ballot tomorrow, not President Trump’s.”

Whoever wins Tuesday will face Democratic Sen. Doug Jones in November. Jones narrowly defeated Republican Roy Moore, who had Trump’s endorsement, in a 2017 special election amid newly public allegations that Moore sexually assaulted minors. Jones is now the most endangered incumbent Democrat running this year. It’s an uphill battle for Jones with Trump at the top of the ticket in a state the president won by 28 points in 2016. This is a “lean Republican” seat, according to Cook Political Report. The Auburn University poll also showed both Tuberville and Sessions beating Jones in a head-to-head matchup, but there appears to be room to sway undecided voters if Tuberville is the nominee. The number of people who say they “don’t know” who they would vote for jumps from 0.6 percent with Sessions as the GOP nominee to 13.6 percent with Tuberville as the nominee.

The reckoning with Confederate statues and monuments happening across much of the South could also play into this race if Sessions clinches the GOP nomination. The Selma-born former senator is named after not one but two Confederate leaders: President Jefferson Davis and General P.G.T. Beauregard (Sessions’ middle name). Jones and Sessions got into a Twitter spat over monuments last month. In one tweet, Jones said, “I know it’s tough for you to be on the right side of history when it comes to the Confederacy, but you should give it a try.” In another, Sessions replied, “This insane attempt to erase American history has to end.”

Democrats vie to oust Collins in Maine

National Democrats think Maine is one of their best chances to oust an incumbent Republican senator. Moderate Sen. Susan Collins, running for her fifth term, is in the fight of her life, facing criticism from Democrats for her vote to confirm Justice Brett Kavanaugh and to acquit Trump in his impeachment trial. While she has sided with the president on some issues, she has distanced herself on others — like planning to skip the Republican convention next month and voting against repealing Obamacare.

That’s the backdrop for Tuesday’s Democratic Senate primary. National Democrats, including the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, have put their support behind state House Speaker Sara Gideon, who they say is the best candidate to take on Collins in November. She has already been running her race more against Collins than her primary opponents — lawyer Bre Kidman and activist Elizabeth Sweet. But it’s Kidmand and Sweet she will need to defeat Tuesday to get on the ticket. With a nearly $23 million fundraising haul, Gideon has raised 35 times her two opponents’ combined total.

If Gideon wins on Tuesday, she heads into the fall campaign evenly matched with Collins in this toss-up race. Both have about $5 million cash on hand. And a recent poll by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic polling firm, showed Gideon leading Collins by 4 points, just outside the margin of error. A poll last month by a GOP-aligned group showed Collins leading by 8 points.

Maine House toss-up

Republicans in Maine’s 2nd congressional district will also pick their nominee to go up against freshman Democratic Rep. Jared Golden in November. Because of Maine’s ranked choice voting, Golden ousted incumbent Republican Rep. Bruce Poliquin by about one point in 2018. It was the first race in U.S. history where ranked choice voting decided the outcome, favoring a candidate who did not receive the plurality of first-choice votes  Poliquin would have won under traditional voting rules.

Now the seat, in a district Trump won by more than 10 points, is rated a toss-up by the Cook Political Report.

Republican candidates include on the ballot Tuesday include former state Sen. Eric Brakey, who was the Republican Senate nominee in 2018 and lost to Sen. Angus King in the general; former state Rep. Dale Crafts; and Adrienne Bennett, a former journalist-turned-press secretary for Gov. Paul LePage.

Maine ballot initiatives

Tuesday will be the first vote on bond issues for government infrastructure projects since the beginning of the pandemic, which put millions of Americans out of work and forced state governments to tighten their belts because of reduced tax revenue. Maine voters will decide on two bond issues Tuesday — high-speed internet and transportation infrastructure — for a combined $120 million in spending.

In the last 10 years, 31 bond issues — with an average cost of $34 million and totaling more than $1 billion in all — have been on the ballot in Maine. All but one were passed. The single loser was a 2012 bond that would have provided money to the state’s community college system.

The vote on high-speed internet is made more relevant by the pandemic, as many people are working and schooling their children at home. Voters will reject or approve $15 million in bonds to fund high-speed internet infrastructure access for underserved areas.

Voters will also be deciding whether to spend $105 million to fund transportation infrastructure projects like highways and bridges. In the past decade, transportation bonds have been before state voters eight times and been approved each time, with another $105 million package approved last year.

While Maine is the first state to have bond issues on the ballot since March, six states will have bond issues on the ballot in November. Those include funding for issues ranging from stem cell research in California to education in North Carolina to unemployment compensation in Ohio.

Texas Democratic Senate runoff

In recent elections, Democrats have pushed the narrative that Texas’ changing demographics mean they have a real chance of winning there. But the state hasn’t been represented by a Democratic senator in nearly 30 years, and it’s been even longer since it voted for a Democratic presidential candidate.

Democrats on Tuesday will be picking their nominee for the Senate race to take on three-term incumbent Sen. John Cornyn in November. The runoff was pushed back from May because of the pandemic. National Democrats have put their support behind M.J. Hegar, an Air Force veteran and 2018 Democratic House candidate who lost her race but gained national attention with a viral campaign ad. She won 22 percent of the vote in the March 3 primary and is facing state Sen. Royce West, who won 14 percent of the vote.

But Hegar, who has raised more than three times as much money as West, is facing a stronger challenge than she would have liked. A recent Dallas Morning News/UT Tyler poll found Hegar leading registered voters by about 10 points. This has become in many ways a campaign on generational and racial divides, fueled in part by the recent wave of Black Lives Matter protests. West is Black and has positioned himself as a long-term fighter for Civil Rights. Hegar is running as the candidate to personify change and better take on Cornyn in November.

To underscore just how much of an uphill battle this will be for either candidate, the same Dallas Morning News poll found both Hegar and West losing in a head-to-head matchup against Cornyn by about 10 points. Cornyn also has a significant cash advantage with nearly $13 million in the bank. Cook Political Report says this is a Likely Republican hold.

But Democrats do have reason for some hope in Texas. The Dallas Morning News poll that showed Cornyn ahead of Hegar and West also showed Biden leading Trump by 5 points in the state, further fueling the Texas-turning-blue stories. A CBS/YouGov poll had Trump up by 1 point.

Texas House runoffs

Republican runoffs in safe GOP districts on Tuesday will likely be deciding who heads to Congress in January.

In Texas’s 13th District, former White House physician Ronny Jackson is running for the Republican nomination to replace retiring Republican Rep. Mac Thornberry. Trump nominated Jackson to be Veterans Affairs secretary before Jackson withdrew amid questions about his handling of prescriptions. Now armed with Trump’s endorsement in his House race, Jackson faces Josh Winegarner, a former adviser to Cornyn who has the endorsement of Thornberry. Winegarner had a nearly 20-point advantage in the March primary.

In Texas’s 17th District, a former congressman who lost in 2018 is hoping for a comeback. Former Republican Rep. Pete Sessions served more than 20 years before losing to Democrat Colin Allred in 2018. But Sessions isn’t running for his old seat representing Dallas in Texas’ 32nd District. He’s moved south and is hoping to take over for retiring Republican Rep. Bill Flores. On Tuesday, he’s facing Renee Swann, the founder of an eye surgery center and the candidate backed by Flores. Sessions had a nearly 13-point advantage in the March primary.

Two more Texas House runoffs will take place Tuesday in districts expected to be toss-ups in November.

In the state’s 22nd District outside Houston, there’s a Republican runoff to replace retiring Rep. Pete Olson. Republicans will pick between Fort Bend County Sheriff Troy Nehls and businesswoman and conservative activist Kathaleen Wall. Nehls had a 20-point margin in a primary field of more than 12 candidates that saw Pierce Bush, grandson of the late President George H.W. Bush, come in third place. Bush failed to make the runoff.

Democrats have already nominated Sri Kulkarni, who was also their nominee in 2018 when Olson won by about 5 points.

In the 24th District, Republican Rep. Kenny Marchant is retiring after eight terms. This is a district Trump won by 6 points in 2016 before favoring Democratic Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke by 3 points over Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018. In the runoff, Democrats are picking between Air Force veteran and former local school board member Kim Olson and teacher and local school board member Candace Valenzuela, who has been endorsed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, among others. Olson won the March primary by about 10 points. Whoever wins will face the Republican nominee: former Irving mayor and Housing and Urban Development staffer Beth Van Duyne.

Republicans will also pick their nominee in Texas’s 23rd District, as they try to hold onto the seat held by retiring Republican Rep. Will Hurd, the only Black Republican in the House. This is one of the largest congressional districts by area in the country, covering most of west Texas and stretching from El Paso to San Antonio. This district, which has changed party control three times in the last decade, is also one of the most likely seats to flip from Republican to Democratic control in November. It is one of about a half dozen seats currently held by Republicans in districts Hillary Clinton won in 2016, and Democrats have already nominated Gina Ortiz Jones, the candidate who lost to Hurd by less than one point in 2018. She won more votes in the Democratic primary than all the Republican candidates combined. Cook Political Report rates this as a “lean Democratic” seat.

The two GOP candidates in this race are Navy veteran Tony Gonzales, who is backed by Trump and Hurd, and Air Force veteran Raul Reyes, who is backed by Cruz. Gonzales had a 5-point advantage in the March primary.

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