Notes on the State of Politics: Primary Edition


National Republicans get their men (and women)

The key takeaway from Tuesday night’s primaries, and the primary season in general so far, is that national Republican leaders are getting the general election nominees they want in key races. What they do with those nominees in the fall remains to be seen.

In Tuesday’s marquee event, the Republican Senate primary in Georgia, businessman David Perdue (R) — the cousin of former Gov. Sonny Perdue (R)  — and Rep. Jack Kingston (R, GA-1) finished first and second. They will advance to a runoff election nine weeks from now. While of course both candidates could be damaged by the ongoing primary campaign, they are the two preferred candidates of D.C. Republican Senate strategists. Karen Handel (R), the former Georgia secretary of state who finished third, might also have been a decent general election candidate, but she disappointed many Republicans with her lack of fundraising. Bringing up the rear among the top candidates were Reps. Phil Gingrey (R, GA-11) and Paul Broun (R, GA-10), who performed so poorly that their combined vote total didn’t even match third-place finisher Handel. Broun and Gingrey have made controversial social issues comments in the past, the kind that cost Republicans elections.

Ultimately, this process is probably going to produce a candidate, Kingston or Perdue, who will start as a clear favorite against the well-funded Democratic candidate, Michelle Nunn. Despite close horse-race polls, we see no reason to change our Leans Republican rating in this race for now. That said, the race is also far from over, and it’s not a given that Kingston or Perdue will escape unscathed from a long and perhaps brutal runoff.

We mentioned last week the possibility that Rep. Hank Johnson (D, GA-4) would have some trouble in his primary. He did, but he still won renomination with about 55% of the vote.

In Kentucky, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) cruised, as expected, in his primary against Tea Partier Matt Bevin (R). McConnell advances to face a challenge from Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (D) in what polls show is a close race. We remain bullish on McConnell’s chances and are keeping the race at Likely Republican. Perhaps it sounds too simplistic, but we just don’t expect the Bluegrass State, a Republican state in federal elections, to throw out a Republican incumbent when there’s a Democrat in the White House. For what it’s worth, we’re not alone on our bullishness on McConnell: Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight gives the incumbent a 75% chance of winning, the New York Times’ Upshot forecast gives him an 85% chance and the Washington Post’s Election Lab gives him an eye-popping 97% chance. It seems reasonable to expect McConnell’s polling to improve at least slightly after the primary, but the race should also remain close. Our rating has nothing to do with the closeness of the race, though — rather, it reflects a fair amount of confidence in the outcome.

One thing that doesn’t matter at all looking ahead to November: The fact that Grimes got more votes than McConnell in the primary. Kentucky, like some other Redder-than-average states such as North Carolina and West Virginia, has many more registered Democrats than Republicans: about 500,000 more, actually. So naturally turnout in the Democratic primary will be higher.

Georgia and Kentucky are, as of now, the only two Republican seats the Democrats can plausibly target on this year’s Senate map, and while both are competitive, the GOP retains a clear edge in both.

In other primary action, Oregon Republicans chose physician Monica Wehby (R), another D.C. GOP darling, in their primary. Wehby has had a rough week of negative news stories, and she remains a big underdog to Sen. Jeff Merkley (D) in this Likely Democratic race.

An Idaho Republican gubernatorial primary debate generated snickers across the Internet last week, and the contest itself was close: Gov. Butch Otter (R) only won renomination with 51% of the vote. He shouldn’t have any trouble in the fall. In the state’s closely watched ID-2 House Republican primary, Rep. Mike Simpson (R) ended up cruising against attorney Bryan Smith (R), who was backed by the Club for Growth, the outside conservative insurgent group.

Another Republican House member, in Pennsylvania, lagged in his primary: Rep. Bill Shuster (R, PA-9) only got about 53% of the vote. But while we’ve seen many House incumbents turn in weak primary performances, no incumbent House member has lost. In the PA-13 Democratic primary, support from the Clintons was not nearly enough for ex-Rep. Marjorie Margolies (D), who finished well behind state Rep. Brendan Boyle (D) in this safe, open Democratic seat.

In the Democratic gubernatorial primary, businessman Tom Wolf (D) won resoundingly, garnering 58% in a four-candidate field. Wolf, who used his personal wealth to flood the airwaves earlier this year to build a big polling lead he never relinquished, starts as a favorite over Gov. Tom Corbett (R) in a Leans Democratic race.

Coming attractions

While there aren’t any state primaries next Tuesday (May 27), Texas is holding its runoff. The most notable race is Rep. Ralph Hall’s (R, TX-4) attempt to hold onto his seat against former U.S. Attorney John Ratcliffe (R). Hall could be the first House incumbent to lose renomination.

Republicans also will pick between former Rep. Quico Canseco and former CIA agent Will Hurd: The winner will face Rep. Pete Gallego (D, TX-23) in a huge district narrowly won by Mitt Romney that sprawls from El Paso to San Antonio. It takes about seven and a half hours to drive from one end of it to the other.

Down the ballot, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (R) appears likely to find himself on the wrong end of another runoff: In 2012, he lost to now-Sen. Ted Cruz (R) in a Senate primary, and this time he appears to be lagging behind state Sen. Dan Patrick (R) in a race to keep his current job. Dewhurst is definitely the “establishment” candidate in this race.

The next big primary date nationally is in two weeks, June 3, when Alabama, California, Iowa, Mississippi, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico and South Dakota vote.

The Golden State is always a primary highlight, and there are several House races of note, such as whether Democrats can avoid a repeat of last cycle in a Democratic-leaning open seat, CA-31, where two Republicans advanced to a top-two general election, scuttling Democratic hopes of winning the seat. We’ll also get to see if the competitive primary race between Rep. Mike Honda (D, CA-17) and former Obama administration official Ro Khanna (D) is decided in a heavily Democratic district, or if both candidates advance in the top-two primary and the race continues into the fall.

At the top of the ballot, though, California has no Senate race this year, and the only drama in the governor’s race is whether Assemblyman Tim Donnelly (R), a hardline conservative who Republicans worry might perform so poorly against Gov. Jerry Brown (D) that he would cause damage down the ballot, can advance to the general election round over Neel Kashkari (R), a former U.S. Treasury Department official who is more of a moderate.

There are two major Senate primaries. In Iowa, state Sen. Joni Ernst (R) will attempt to finish with more than 35% of the vote, thus avoiding an activist-dominated convention. Her closest competition is businessman Mark Jacobs (R). The open Hawkeye State might be the best chance for Republicans to flip a Democratic Senate seat in a state that President Obama won in 2012; Rep. Bruce Braley (D, IA-1) will be the Democratic nominee.

In Mississippi, the Republican establishment is sweating bullets over genteel Sen. Thad Cochran’s (R) bid for renomination against Tea Party state Sen. Chris McDaniel (R). We continue to lean the race to Cochran, and top Mississippi Republicans continue to insist he’ll win, but primaries can produce odd results. We can’t imagine McDaniel was helped by a bizarre story over the weekend that a local Tea Party activist took pictures of Cochran’s wife, who suffers from dementia, in a nursing home. The activist apparently was chasing a rumor that Cochran was having an affair.

If McDaniel falls to Cochran, the Tea Party’s best chance of defeating a Senate incumbent this cycle will have came and went.

After June 3, more than 40% of the states (21 of 50) will have held their primaries. November draws nearer.