The full scope of President Donald Trump’s influence on the Republican Party will be on display in Tuesday’s primaries, as one of his original 2016 supporters and one of his biggest Republican detractors in Congress fight for their political lives.
Rep. Mark Sanford’s (R-S.C.) frequent criticism of Trump’s policies and rhetoric has landed him in an unexpectedly competitive House primary against a state representative touting herself as a staunch Trump partisan. But at the top of the ticket in South Carolina, Trump’s support is one of the biggest things going for South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, who was the first statewide elected official to back Trump in 2016 but faces questions over his ties to corruption in state government.
Both primaries, and others in South Carolina, could go to overtime if no candidate gets 50 percent of the vote, forcing runoffs between the top two contenders in two weeks. And there is another voting twist on tap in Maine, which will use ranked-choice voting to pick nominees for governor and Congress in what could be the first and only deployment of the practice.
That’s because there’s also a provision on the primary ballot to repeal ranked-choice voting — a good-government innovation designed to more accurately reflect the will of the people that, at the same time, voters may find perplexing.
Also on the ballot: A crowded Democratic primary for a heavily contested House seat in Northern Virginia, packed primaries for two competitive congressional districts in Nevada and a race for governor of Nevada that has drawn national attention and big money.
Polls close at 7 p.m. Eastern in South Carolina and Virginia; 8 p.m. in Maine; 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. in North Dakota (which is split between two time zones); and 10 p.m. in Nevada.
Here’s what POLITICO will be watching in Tuesday’s primaries:
Presidential primary power
Once again, Trump is playing a starring role in two South Carolina Republican primaries, both tests of the power of presidential support among Republican voters.
Sanford, a loud critic of Trump, is in the race of his life against state Rep. Katie Arrington, who has used Sanford’s comments against him and called him an opponent of the Trump agenda in her TV ads. One measure of Sanford’s concern: The race has prompted a last-minute advertising barrage from him, despite his reputation as a notorious penny-pincher on the campaign trail.
The anti-Trump argument carried weight last week in Alabama, where Rep. Martha Roby — who renounced her support for Trump in 2016 after the “Access Hollywood” video came out — finished with just 39 percent of the vote in a five-way primary and faces a runoff next month.
Meanwhile, McMaster — who became governor in 2017 after Nikki Haley joined the Trump administration — is touting his Trump endorsement as his best qualification for the GOP nomination for a full term, as he holds off four primary challengers. He has lead public polling, and is expected to face Democratic state Rep. James Smith in November — if he can hold off challengers including Catherine Templeton, who have slammed McMaster’s ties to corrupt officials including a former political consultant who is under indictment. But both McMaster and Smith hope to avoid a runoff.
A primary test for state legislators seeking a promotion
State legislatures have long been a proving ground for future members of Congress. But fewer and fewer candidates are jumping from state to federal government, and Democrats in the age of Trump have been intensely focused on recruiting and promoting first-time candidates hailing from business, the military and the federal government. A pair of state legislators in Virginia and Maine, however, put that trend to the test in contested House battleground primaries.
In Virginia, state Sen. Jennifer Wexton entered as the Democratic front-runner to take on GOP Rep. Barbara Comstock. But Wexton is running against several well-funded challengers who are seeking office for the first time, and all of them have bluntly cast themselves as fresh faces in contrast to Wexton — “not a politician,” said Dan Helmer, a veteran and first-time candidate, in one of his TV ads.
But Wexton, having represented a swing portion of the district for the past four years, said she believes that being the “only person in this race who serves in elected office or run and won two races in the district” is appealing to voters.
In Maine, Democrats recruited state Rep. Jared Golden, a 35-year-old combat veteran, to take on GOP Rep. Bruce Poliquin. But Golden must first dispatch conservationist and first-timer Lucas St. Clair, whose mother co-founded Burt’s Bees, a personal care products company.
Maine’s Democratic experiment
Democratic voters in Maine picking their nominee for governor on Tuesday have up to eight choices to make instead of the usual one.
Under the state’s new “ranked-choice” voting system, the ballot will function as an instant runoff. Voters can rank the candidates 1 through 8, just choose the one they want, or anywhere in between. (There are four Republican candidates, too; Gov. Paul LePage is term limited.)
Democrats will also nominate a candidate to face GOP Rep. Bruce Poliquin in the state’s 2nd Congressional District using the system, choosing from four options on the ballot. Poliquin’s seat is a battleground district; the two-term incumbent was reelected with 55 percent of the vote in 2016.
Good-government groups tout instant runoff voting as more reflective of public opinion — especially after LePage won twice with a plurality of the vote because independent candidate Eliot Cutler split liberal-leaning votes with the Democratic nominee. (Cutler actually finished second in 2010, but he was a distant third in 2014.)
But critics argue ranked-choice voting is confusing and sometimes leads to less-desirable outcomes. In San Francisco, which just held a mayoral election, the San Francisco Chronicle called the instant-runoff system an “oxymoron” that confuses many voters and could mean the next mayor was the first choice of only a quarter of voters.
The entire system may be end up being a short-lived experiment in Maine, however. An initiative on the ballot proposed to delay implementing the system until 2022 — and then using it only if the state constitution is amended before 2021. Voters confused by when they pick their candidates may choose to chuck the system at the same time.
Fight night for Nevada Democrats
While Nevada has shifted from solid red state to blue-leaning battleground in recent years, Democrats haven’t managed to win the governorship in two decades. They sense opportunity to do it in 2018 — and that has led to this week’s most contentious statewide primary, with the winner likely to face GOP front-runner and state Attorney General Adam Laxalt in the fall.
Steve Sisolak and Christina Giunchigliani, both Clark County commissioners, are the two leading candidates in a Democratic race that turned ugly quickly. Sisolak, who has built a more moderate record, calls Giunchigliani (known colloquially as “Chris G.”) “what’s wrong with politics.” Giunchigliani, who notched a late endorsement from Hillary Clinton, attacked her opponent as too far right for a Democratic primary on education and especially guns.
“Steve is less doctrinaire than Chris is,” said Nevada Democratic strategist Dan Hart. Sisolak’s allies argue that makes him an ideal general election candidate for a state that swings back and forth between the parties, but Giunchigliani’s supporters argue she can energize the party in the general election.
There’s no recent public polling in the race, but the primary will provide more clues about the direction of Democratic Party in 2018, both along ideological and gender fault lines.
A ‘change’ political era meets old candidates in Nevada swing seats
Two open battleground districts are up for grabs in Nevada, and all sides expect these races to attract tons of spending this fall. But none of the likely candidates here are new to the game.
Trump publicly nudged Danny Tarkanian — a Republican candidate threatening Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) with a primary challenge — into running instead for Nevada’s 3rd Congressional District, the same seat Tarkanian lost to Rep. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) in 2016. Now, Rosen is running for the Senate, and Tarkanian’s “100 percent name recognition makes it awful hard to lose a [primary] race,” said one Republican consultant in the state. Democrats, meanwhile, expect Susie Lee, a philanthropist who lost a primary bid in a neighboring district in 2016, to win the nomination.
Meanwhile, a pair of former House members are seeking a 2014 rematch to the north. Former Rep. Cresent Hardy (R-Nev.) beat former Rep. Steven Horsford (D-Nev.) in the 4th District in 2014, but Hardy was defeated in 2016 by Rep. Ruben Kihuen.
Kihuen’s congressional tenure was a short one, though: The freshman Democrat announced he would not seek reelection after multiple allegations of sexual harassment.
Horsford and Hardy, both seeking their respective party nominations on Tuesday, are expected to head into November together again.