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What the year’s biggest primary night gave each party

More than 6 million voters went to the polls across eight states on Tuesday, the biggest primary night of the year. The battle to control Congress was front and center, but there were revealing elections in key Senate and gubernatorial races too. Judy Woodruff gets analysis from Scott Schafer of KQED and Stuart Rothenberg of Inside Elections.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We begin tonight with politics, and the largest voting night of the year to date.

    Yesterday, more than six million Americans went to the polls in primary contests across eight states. The battle to control Congress was front and center, but there were revealing elections in key Senate and gubernatorial races, too.

  • Debra Haaland:

    Tonight, we made history.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It was a good night for Democrat Debra Haaland in New Mexico's 1st Congressional District, where she's aiming to be the first native American woman elected to Congress.

  • Debra Haaland:

    Our win is a victory for working people, a victory for women, a victory for Indian country.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    She was one of the many women with primary victories Tuesday, building on a good year so far for female candidates. Other winners included Republican Kristi Noem, the first woman gubernatorial nominee in South Dakota, and Democrat Deidre DeJear, the first African-American nominee for statewide office in Iowa.

    Also in the Hawkeye State's 1st District , 28-year-old state Representative Abby Finkenauer decisively won the Democratic nomination. If voters send her to Washington in November, she will be the youngest woman ever elected to Congress.

  • Abby Finkenauer:

    So many folks are just ready for change and new energy, and that's what you're seeing tonight.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But for some incumbents, there were challenges. In Alabama, Representative Martha Roby came in first, but was forced into a run-off. She faced backlash from Republican voters for her public announcement in October 2016 that she wouldn't vote for Mr. Trump, just one day after an "Access Hollywood" tape surfaced of him making lewd comments about women.

  • Rep. Martha Roby, R-Ala.:

    I have been running on my conservative record, and I'm going to continue to do that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Roby will face former Democratic Representative-turned-Trump supporter Bobby Bright next month.

    In New Jersey, Democratic U.S. Senator Robert Menendez faced a tougher-than-expected challenge from a relatively unknown opponent. His win came a little more than a month after the Senate Ethics Committee severely admonished the two-term incumbent, and months after the U.S. Department of Justice dropped a corruption case against him.

    But the biggest prize of the night for both parties came in California, where, by law, the top two vote-getters in a race advance, no matter their party. Despite having multiple contestants, Democrats avoided shutouts and will have candidates on November's ballot in seven districts that Hillary Clinton won in 2016, but that are represented now by Republicans.

    In the California governor's race, it was Republicans who avoided a shutout and the specter of depressed general election turnout. Businessman John Cox, who recently got the national GOP's backing, came in second to the Democratic lieutenant governor, Gavin Newsom. In a state where Democratic voters outnumber Republicans nearly 2-1, Newsom quickly tried to turn the race into a referendum on President Trump.

  • Gavin Newsom:

    And it looks like voters will have a real choice this November, between a governor who is going to stand up to Donald Trump, and a foot soldier in his war on California.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    For more on those election results, I'm joined now by Stuart Rothenberg. He's senior editor at Inside Elections. And Scott Shafer, he's senior editor for PBS station KQED in San Francisco.

    And welcome to both of you to the program.

    So, Stu, I'm going to start with you.

    What did each party need to do yesterday, and did they do it?

  • Stuart Rothenberg:

    Well, I think the Democrats needed to get candidates to the November ballot in California, and they needed to show well in a number of other states, in Iowa and New Jersey, where there were significant contests.

    I think they did that. It looks that way. There was all this hand-wringing that maybe in California's top two process that the Democrats would be shut out of a few districts. That didn't seem to happen. So that was good.

    The Republicans got a candidate, a statewide candidate. There was concern that they wouldn't have anybody in either of the statewide races.

    John Cox appears to be in the race.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    This is still California.

  • Stuart Rothenberg:

    In California, yes. So I think they got that.

    But I don't see any fundamental shift in the election cycle because of these contests. I don't think there were any new races on the board. I don't think there were races that were on the board that are now off the board.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, we're going to talk about some of those other states in a minute.

    But I do want to turn to California, Scott Shafer.

    Let's talk about that governor's race. Democrats had wanted to — they wanted both of the top two slots, so the Republicans wouldn't have anybody on the ballot in November. They didn't get that. Tell us a little bit about what happened.

  • Scott Shafer:

    Yes, well, we had that top two primary.

    And, of course, Gavin Newsom, the lieutenant governor, had said very openly that he would love to run against a Republican, for all the reasons you mentioned at the top. Judy, it's a much more easier race for him.

    If, say, Antonio Villaraigosa, the Democrat from Los Angeles, had come in second, it would have set up a very different contest, probably a much closer election for Gavin Newsom, because Villaraigosa had run a little bit to his right.

    But that didn't happen, in part because President Trump weighed in. Kevin McCarthy, the majority leader, who is from Bakersfield, California, got the president to endorse John Cox a couple of weeks before the election. And that really put the thumb on the scale for him.

    And, of course, Kevin McCarthy wants to become speaker and he can only do that if the Republicans mold on to the majority. And without a Republican at the top of the ticket, Republicans were worried that the turnout in November would be low, so they have avoided that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    They're hoping they have got extra energy. They're going to have a name at the top of the ticket in all — across the state.

    So let's talk about those, what is it, half-a-dozen or so congressional races in California where Democrats were trying to make inroads. These are districts where Hillary Clinton won in 2016, but these are districts now represented by Republicans. Tell us quickly about those.

  • Scott Shafer:

    Right.

    So, in San Diego, for example, Darrell Issa is the current Republican member of Congress. He is retiring, as is Ed Royce, who is in Orange County a little bit to the north. And so before they retired, a lot of Democrats piled into those races thinking they were going to run off against the Republican incumbent.

    And so when those Republicans retired, it created this problem for Democrats, like, oh, my goodness, we're going to split up the pie into too many slices and Democrats are going to get shut out. That didn't happen.

    It's still going to be difficult or at least a challenge for Democrats to pick up those seats, but they're much better positioned than they might have been, especially down in San Diego, where the first place finisher was a Republican, but the next three are all Democrats. We're still going to have to wait and see until all the ballots are counted which Democrat comes in second. But they're looking really good down there.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Stu, let's come back to some of these other states and talk about what looks good and what may be a worry for each one of the parties.

    Democrats happy about Iowa because they may have a shot at the governor's race?

  • Stuart Rothenberg:

    Fred Hubbell, the former CEO of Equitable Life, is the nominee. He won comfortably, won the primary comfortably. It was a very crowded race.

    Look, this is not a top-tier opportunity for Democrats, but it has moved from off the table to probably on the table. It's one worth watching. And Democrats got two really strong congressional candidates, both women, in the 1st and 3rd Districts, so I think they're enthusiastic about Iowa.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Stu, New Jersey. Robert Menendez had been facing a lot of ethical challenges, court cases and so forth. He's gotten beyond that.

  • Stuart Rothenberg:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But his vote was less this time.

  • Stuart Rothenberg:

    Right, he won with about 60 percent of the primary vote. It was, frankly, an embarrassing showing for the senator and it's a reflection of his ethics issues and the bad press he has been getting, and the Ethics Committee admonished him.

    But he's going to win in November. It's New Jersey. It's the Trump midterm election. That's not going to happen. Democrats actually had a terrific night in New Jersey, I thought. They got good candidates, and they are well-positioned to take two open seats and to take on Leonard Lance, a Republican incumbent.

    I think New Jersey could be a real Democratic big night.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And one other race, Stu, I want to ask you about is Alabama, Martha Roby. We mentioned her. She was one of the very few Republicans who was critical of President Trump after the "Access Hollywood" tape before the election in 2016.

  • Stuart Rothenberg:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Here we are two years later, and it looks like it may have taken some toll in the Republican primary.

  • Stuart Rothenberg:

    Yes. This is the bizarro world race, it seems to me.

    Martha Roby has a run-off against Bobby Bright for the Republican nomination. Bobby Bright is a former Democratic congressman who lost to Martha Roby in the general election in 2010.

    But Bobby Bright has embraced Donald Trump. And Martha Roby is having to explain why she was critical of the now president. Look, the grassroots, particularly in Alabama, very supportive of Donald Trump.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Speaking of Donald Trump, Scott Shafer, back to you in California.

    We know the polls show he is not very popular there, but Republicans believe they can make some inroads and in places where he is popular.

  • Scott Shafer:

    Well, that's true. In places like Orange County, he's less unpopular than he was, say, a year ago. I wouldn't say he's popular.

    But at the statewide level, John Cox, I think, used Trump's endorsement to get into the top two, but as a statewide race, having Donald Trump's endorsement and sort of hitching your wagon to Donald Trump is not a formula for success for a statewide election.

    The last time a Republican won a statewide race, Judy, in California was in 2006. His name was Schwarzenegger. And so John Cox, not very well known, he's going to have a very tall order in trying to run a very competitive race against Gavin Newsom come the fall.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So many races to keep our eyes on.

    Scott Shafer, Stu Rothenberg, thank you both.

  • Stuart Rothenberg:

    Thanks, Judy.

  • Scott Shafer:

    Thank you.

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