July 14 primaries: 6 key Senate and House races to watch

Three critically important US Senate races have primaries on Tuesday: Maine, Alabama, and Texas.

The fiercest competition comes in the Republican primary for Senate in Alabama, where the once inevitable-looking candidate and President Donald Trump’s former attorney general, Jeff Sessions, seems like much less of a sure bet. Sessions is up against former Auburn and Texas Tech football coach Tommy Tuberville, and the race has largely become a referendum on which candidate would be more loyal to the president.

The winner of that race will eventually face Sen. Doug Jones (D), who is easily the most endangered Democratic senator, simply due to the fact he’s in a deeply red state that is still incredibly pro-Trump.

If Republicans consider Alabama one of their few pickup opportunities in 2020, Democrats see two potential pickups of their own in the Maine and Texas Senate races, against incumbent Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME) and John Cornyn (R-TX).

Collins’s race is seen as especially competitive. There’s a three-person Democratic field vying to unseat her: Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon, activist Betsy Sweet, and attorney Bre Kidman. State and national experts see Gideon as the favorite, and the Senate race in Maine has been a general-election style race between her and Collins for months already.

In Texas, the Democratic primary between Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee-endorsed candidate MJ Hegar and state Sen. Royce West, endorsed by the Congressional Black Caucus PAC, has also gotten competitive. The winner will go on to face Cornyn, in a race that will be an uphill battle for Democrats to flip.

In addition to the three Senate primaries, there are also competitive House primaries in Maine and Texas. Vox will be carrying live results for these races on Tuesday, in partnership with our friends at DecisionDeskHQ.

Two races to watch in Maine

Maine Senate race

The Maine Senate race against longtime incumbent Sen. Susan Collins (R) is one that Democrats have long tried — and failed — to make competitive. But 2020 could be their best shot.

Collins is running unopposed in the Republican primary on Tuesday. Meanwhile, Maine Speaker of the House Sara Gideon is widely considered the frontrunner in the Democratic race. There are two challengers running to Gideon’s left — activist and 2018 gubernatorial candidate Betsy Sweet and attorney Bre Kidman, who is the first openly non-binary person to run for US Senate. Both Sweet and Kidman support progressive policies like Medicare-for-all and a Green New Deal. Gideon supports a public option and has expressed support for a clean infrastructure plan and investing in renewables.

Maine political science experts largely expect Gideon to win the race, even with her challengers hitting her on issues including not attending earlier Democratic forums. Gideon has vastly outraised her primary competitors and has the backing of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

“She’s the candidate of everybody except for a small group of Bernie Sanders supporters,” Sandy Maisel, a professor of government at Colby College, told Vox.

The Senate race has ostensibly been run like a general election for months, with a deluge of advertising coming from both Collins and Gideon’s campaigns as well as outside groups.

The focus of the Senate race has shifted to the coronavirus, where Collins has been touting her work in the Senate on Covid-19 relief, including getting PPP loans to Maine. But like in many other Senate races, the big issue of 2020 for Republican incumbents will be Trump. This puts Collins in a bind. She’s a pro-choice moderate who touts her bipartisan record; nevertheless, she voted for Trump’s Supreme Court picks including Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who voted against abortion providers in a recent ruling.

“[Trump is] in Collins’ party, and she is going to be viewed — like it or not — at least partially through a Trumpian lense,” said University of Maine political science professor Mark Brewer. “The Kavanaugh vote, she can’t break that.”

Collins has easily won her past races for reelection and proved herself an adept politician in Maine who is tough to beat. This race will still be extremely competitive, but political experts in the state like Brewer say Collins no longer has the upper hand.

“If someone were to say to me, ‘Rate this race,’ I’d say it’s a toss-up,” Brewer told Vox.

Maine’s Second Congressional District

Democrats surprised the state in 2018 when they managed to flip Maine’s more conservative Second Congressional District in that year’s blue wave. Rep. Jared Golden, a moderate Democrat, managed to unseat longtime incumbent Bruce Poliquin in part because Maine shifted to a ranked-choice voting system that year.

Now, Golden is the one up for reelection and Poliquin isn’t attempting to win back his old seat. Instead, Republicans Adrienne Bennett, Eric Brakey, and Dale Crafts are all competing for that chance. Crafts is a former state representative; Bennett previously served as former Gov. Paul LePage’s press secretary; Brakey is a former Maine state senator with a libertarian leaning. All three candidates have embraced Trump.

Maine’s Second Congressional District is seen as fairly conservative; it’s rural and tends to be home to older voters. Golden tacks close to the middle; he was the only member of the House to split his vote on the impeachment vote against President Trump, voting for the first article of impeachment but against the second. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates this race a toss-up.

One runoff to watch in Alabama

Alabama Senate Republican primary

The race between former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and former Auburn and Texas Tech football coach Tommy Tuberville has pitted two fervent allies of Donald Trump against one another. Sessions is a one-time member of the administration, but it’s former Auburn football coach Tuberville who has gained Trump’s endorsement and a promised rally in Mobile, Alabama (though coronavirus may scramble that planned event.) The winner of the runoff will face Democratic Sen. Doug Jones, who became the first Democrat to win a Senate seat in the state since 1992 when he defeated alleged child molester Roy Moore in a 2017 special election. In a state Trump won handily in 2016, Jones is believed to be the most vulnerable Democratic incumbent this cycle.

Tuberville, formerly a very good college football coach at Auburn and a less good football coach at Texas Tech and the University of Cincinnati, has never served in elected office. Sessions called him an “empty suit, a nubbin” in an interview with Fox News’ Tucker Carlson last week.

Theoretically, it should have been easy for Sessions, who served as Alabama’s senator from 1997 to 2017 and was the first senator to endorse Trump’s presidential campaign, to clinch the primary for his old seat. But the first signs of trouble for Sessions started earlier this year when he couldn’t notch the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff. His relationship with Trump soured when, as attorney general, Sessions recused himself from the investigation into Russian involvement in the 2016 election. Trump said in a May interview that Sessions “was the biggest problem” who “put people in place that were a disaster.”

Trump’s support for Tuberville — and visceral loathing for Sessions — will play a critical role in the runoff. Sessions was already facing an uphill battle in his first real election in more than two decades. But now, he has a major Trump problem, Bill Britt, editor-in-chief of the Alabama Political Reporter, told Vox.

“The biggest factor in the race between Tuberville and Sessions is that the base of the Alabama Republican Party believes that Sessions betrayed the president. That’s the simple answer.” As for Tuberville, Britt said, “[his] greatest strength is that he was a football coach at Auburn. His greatest weakness is that he didn’t coach Alabama.”

Three races to watch in Texas

Texas Senate Democratic primary

In Texas’s Democratic Senate runoff this Tuesday, Air Force veteran MJ Hegar and state Sen. Royce West will square off for the chance to face incumbent John Cornyn in November. With the endorsement of the DSCC and about $1.6 million in the bank, Hegar unquestionably has the advantage — but it’s still a competitive race.

According to Mark Jones, a fellow in political science at Rice University, Hegar was a “lock” for the seat when the race went to a runoff in March. In the first round of voting, she led the field with a bit over 22 percent of the vote, followed by West with 14.5 percent.

But, Jones says, “the George Floyd murder and subsequent calls for reform have really boosted Royce West’s chances.” Hegar is still considered the favorite, but she’s far less likely to run away with the race. West is also backed by the Congressional Black Caucus PAC and the Houston Chronicle, among other endorsers.

“We’ve seen Hegar’s Anglo support begin to drop a little,” Jones said. “We also are seeing African American officeholders and political elites in the state really rally behind West in a way that they hadn’t in the original primary in March.”

As a result, Hegar is spending like she’s in a serious race: According to the Texas Tribune, she, along with the DSCC and EMILY’s List, poured at least $2 million into ads in the Houston area over the last week of the race, outspending West 85 to 1.

Regardless of who wins out on Tuesday, Cornyn will be a challenging incumbent to unseat. The Cook Political Report rates his race as “Likely R,” and Jones agrees that Cornyn is “still pretty safe.” But, he adds, “he’s safer if West wins rather than if Hegar wins.”

TX-22 GOP runoff

When Republican voters in Texas’s 22nd congressional district went to the polls in March, they slammed the door on the scion of Texas’s favorite son. Despite the endorsement of outgoing Rep. Pete Olson, Pierce Bush — grandson of H.W. — finished third behind sheriff Troy Nehls and GOP activist Kathaleen Wall.

On Tuesday, Nehls and Wall will again be on the ballot for a runoff, with the winner set to challenge Democratic nominee Sri Preston Kulkarni in November. Kulkarni is a second-time nominee with a serious shot at winning the district in November: In 2018, he finished only about 5 points behind Olson, who has since announced his retirement.

Currently, the district is rated as a toss-up by the Cook Political Report.

Though Wall has spent a colossal amount of her own money on the race — about $8.3 million, according to the Houston Chronicle — Nehls, who in March won about 40 percent of the vote to Wall’s 19.4 percent, is the favorite to win out and face Kulkarni in the general.

“People in Fort Bend County” — which makes up the majority of the 22nd district — “are well aware that Kathaleen Wall is from the center of Houston, she’s not from Fort Bend County,” Jones said. “So that’s going to work against her, as well as the fact that for [a] more pragmatic Republican, she could actually lose a seat that is a leaning Republican seat.”

TX-13 GOP runoff

In Texas’s 13th district, a former White House doctor is looking to make his way back to Washington. Ronny Jackson, a retired Navy admiral and Trump’s onetime nominee to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, will face lobbyist Josh Winegarner on Tuesday. The competitive runoff for the district’s GOP nomination will likely decide who will next hold the district’s seat in the House.

Currently, the district is home to Rep. Mac Thornberry, the ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee who is retiring after a quarter-century in Congress.

Winegarner, leading the primary by almost 20 points, is Thornberry’s choice to replace him in the House. However, Jackson has the support of his former patient, Donald Trump, as well as a fundraising advantage.

Jones says that endorsement, as well as the backing of the Club for Growth, will probably be enough to propel Jackson to victory over Winegarner on Tuesday.

There will also be a Democratic runoff in the district Tuesday: Gus Trujillo will take on Greg Sagan for the Democratic nomination and the chance to face either Jackson or Winegarner.

However, the general election is all but a foregone conclusion. According to Jones, “there is zero doubt that the Republican is going to win in November. The only question is do they win by 50 points, 60 points, or 70 points.”

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