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Tuesday’s primaries offer lessons for November

Voters in five states headed to the polls on Tuesday in one of the biggest tests of the election system ahead of the November general election. The ongoing global pandemic has complicated elections in states across the country, including in Georgia, where the primary was pushed back from March.

The races Tuesday exposed some of the challenges each party will face in November, when Democrats will be defending their narrow House majority and Republicans their Senate majority and the presidency.

Issues with voting wait times in Georgia

Voters in Georgia ran into several issues in Tuesday’s primary.

The state received a record-breaking 1.5 million requests for absentee ballots amid the pandemic. At the polls, brand new voting machines purchased in the last year did not always work properly. With fewer voting precincts because of the pandemic and some absent poll workers, some voters in the Atlanta area spent hours waiting in line. Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger called the voting situation in three counties “unacceptable” and opened an investigation amid growing concern that the confusion was leading to voter suppression.

One other factor leading to a long night in Georgia were the state’s run-off rules. Georgia is one of just a few states that require a primary run-off if no candidate gets above 50 percent of the vote. That rule is setting up some interesting races to watch in a state that will get a lot of attention in November.

Runoff rules and Georgia races to watch

While both of the state’s Senate seats will be on the ballot in November, just one had a primary race on Tuesday. Incumbent Republican Sen. David Perdue ran unopposed in the Republican primary, while the Democratic field was led by Democrat Jon Ossoff — a familiar candidate to those who watched the 2017 special election to fill former Rep. Tom Price’s seat.

On the Democratic side, this is the highest-profile race likely heading to a run-off. With 95 percent of precincts reporting, Ossoff sits just shy of the magic number with 48.7 percent of the vote, leading the seven-candidate field.

Ossoff rose to national prominence during a 2017 special election for a House seat representing Georgia’s 6th district. In the most expensive House race in U.S. history, Ossoff raised and spent $30 million to lose by about 3.5 points to Republican Karen Handel, who would be defeated the next year by Democrat Lucy McBath.

For his Senate campaign, Ossoff has raised just a fraction of that previous total — $4.1 million so far, according to his May 20 FEC filing. That’s still enough to match the combined total fundraising of all six of his Democratic opponents, but he still has raised less than a third of Perdue’s total. Right now, sitting far back in second place in the Democratic primary with less than 15 percent of the vote is Teresa Tomlinson, former mayor of Columbus, Georgia. She’s raised $2.5 million.

While Georgia is one of the states Joe Biden is targeting as a potential Democratic pickup in November, there could be one sign of trouble from Tuesday’s primary. Biden won the presidential primary with more than 80 percent of the vote, but nearly 50,000 fewer Democrats voted in the presidential primary than in the Senate race.

Georgia’s other Senate race will be decided in November as all the candidates, regardless of party, battle it out on the same ballot. If no one gets above 50 percent then, the top two will move on to a runoff. The biggest names in this race are both Republicans – Rep. Doug Collins is challenging appointed Sen. Kelly Loeffler.

The state also has several House seats to watch in November, including two rated as toss-ups by the Cook Political Report.

McBath, who won her seat in the Northern Atlanta suburbs by one percentage point in 2018, will face off against Handel again. Handel cruised to victory on Tuesday, claiming about 70 percent of the vote in a 5-person primary. The Georgia 6th is one of 31 seats currently held by Democrats that President Donald Trump won in 2016, by just one point, making it a top target for Republicans trying to regain control of the House.

The other Georgia toss-up is right next door in the 7th district. The GOP-held seat is being vacated by Rep. Rob Woodall, who is retiring. Woodall hung on to his seat in the closest congressional race in the country in 2018. Carolyn Bourdeaux came up just 433 votes shy of flipping the seat for the Democrats, and this year she’s hoping for another chance. But she’ll have to survive a Democratic runoff first. With 97 percent of precincts reporting, Bourdeaux has 46 percent of the vote in a 6-person race. Again, the person in second place is far behind with 14.5 percent of the vote.

The Republican nominee in the 7th will be first-time candidate Rich McCormick, a Marine pilot and ER doctor with endorsements from high-profile conservatives including Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), among others. McCormick won 55 percent of the vote in a 7-candidate primary, beating out a Georgia establishment-backed state senator, who fell to a distant second.

At least three other House primary races are heading into run-offs after Tuesday’s votes, including Georgia’s 9th district seat being vacated by Collins as he runs for Senate.

Rep. John Lewis, who is battling stage IV pancreatic cancer, easily won the Democratic nomination in the solid blue 5th district as he seeks his 18th term in the House.

A key Senate race in West Virginia

The only other state to hold a presidential primary on Tuesday was West Virginia, a state Trump won in 2016 with 68 percent of the vote, his largest margin of victory in any state.

West Virginia remains a state with almost 50,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans, but the turnout on Tuesday could offer insight into enthusiasm ahead of November. Around 200,000 Republican primary voters turned out yesterday to overwhelmingly back Trump with 95 percent of the vote. Democrats had 178,000 voters cast ballots, and just 65 percent of those went to Biden.

Meanwhile, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, who is looking for a second term, appeared for the first time in a Republican primary. He ran as a Democrat in 2016 before switching back to the Republican Party during a much-hyped rally with Trump in 2017. He easily won the GOP nomination with almost two-thirds of the vote. The governorship is solidly Republican, according to Cook Political Report.

One final race of note in West Virginia: Democrat Richard Ojeda lost his primary for the Senate nomination. He previously lost a Congressional race in 2018 before taking a short run at the Democratic presidential nomination. He dropped out in January 2019, when just three other candidates in a soon-to-be historically large field had formally launched their campaigns.

In the Senate primary, Ojeda was the more moderate candidate and narrowly lost to Paula Jean Swearengin, who was backed by Justice Democrats, the progressive group that challenged a number of Democratic incumbents in 2018 with a few noteworthy successes, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s primary win over 10-term Rep. Joe Crowley.

Swearengin previously challenged Sen. Joe Manchin for the Democratic nomination in 2018 and lost by a 2-1 margin. Her losing campaign was featured in the 2019 documentary “Knock Down The House,” alongside Ocasio-Cortez. Swearengin will take on first-term Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito in November. The seat is rated solid Republican, according to the Cook Political Report.

Setting up a House showdown in South Carolina

In South Carolina, Trump’s one-time presidential opponent-turned-ally Sen. Lindsey Graham easily fended off three primary challengers, winning two-thirds of the vote as he seeks his fourth term. Graham will face off against Democrat Jaime Harrison, former chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party and a DNC associate chair. Harrison was unopposed in the primary, and if he wins in November, would make South Carolina the first state with two black senators serving together. But, it is a likely Republican seat, according to Cook Political Report.

Of the 22 House contests rated as toss-up by Cook Political Report, South Carolina has one. In the low country, Rep. Joe Cunningham became the first Democrat to represent the 1st District in almost 40 years when he won the 2018 race by about 1.5 points. The district was once represented by now Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., and became competitive in 2018 after incumbent Rep. Mark Sanford lost the GOP nomination to a Trump-endorsed candidate.

The 1st District is another of the 31 House seats held by Democrats in districts Trump won in 2016. Trump’s 13-point victory over Hillary Clinton has Republicans hoping his name on the ticket in November will boost their nominee — state representative Nancy Mace, the first woman to graduate from The Citadel.

Mace was part of the National Republican Congressional Committee’s Young Guns program and received the backing of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who is hoping to add to the total of just 13 women representing his party in the House.

It’s not the first time Mace has run for office. She ran against Graham in the 2014 Republican Senate primary, coming in fifth place with just 6 percent of the vote. Cunningham has raised $3.7 million as of May, nearly three times Mace’s total.

A small but important race in North Dakota

North Dakota also held elections Tuesday, with Democrats nominating Zach Raknerud as the candidate to take on, and likely be defeated by, Rep. Kelly Armstrong in November. In 2018, then-state senator Armstrong won the solidly Republican seat — North Dakota’s sole congressional seat — by nearly 25 points over his Democratic challenger.

While North Dakota’s House race might not be the tightest one to watch, one story of significance comes from a down ballot race that wasn’t a race at all, with Democrats and Republicans nominating unopposed candidates for a six-year term for one of three seats on the state’s public service commission. The board — which regulates telecommunications, utilities and pipelines, among other things — last month approved a natural gas pipeline and processing plant to be built in the Bakken Formation, even as oil prices have plummeted in the pandemic.

The group also regulates energy prices, and is set to meet next month to consider raising prices for consumers amid soaring costs. Local races like this one go unnoticed all the time, but can significantly affect people’s lives. With state and local governments becoming more visible as the federal government takes a backseat in responding to the pandemic, races like this could garner more attention.

In the marquee races both parties will be watching in November, Republicans have a lot of ground to cover in the next few months if they want to flip at least 15 seats to take back the House, but Trump’s name on the ticket could give them a boost in down ballot races. When it comes to the Senate, Democrats are the ones on offense, hoping to flip four seats to regain the majority outright.

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