By Eli Yokley
March 2, 2020 at 6:00 pm ET
All eyes are focused on Super Tuesday’s presidential elections, when voters will allocate roughly a third of state delegates to the Democratic National Convention.
But away from the national spotlight, a whole other slate of nominating contests will take place that will have a large effect on the agenda of whoever is elected president, setting up key races that will determine who will control the House and Senate after elections this fall.
Of the 14 states holding presidential nominating contests, five — Alabama, Arkansas, California, North Carolina and Texas — will hold primary elections for other federal offices, setting the stage for key down-ballot races this fall.
Here are some important things to keep an eye on from those contests.
Who will advance toward a challenge of the Senate’s most vulnerable Democrat?
Jeff Sessions, the Alabama Republican who left the Senate in 2017 to join Trump’s administration as attorney general, is seen as the leading contender in a hard-fought contest for the party’s nomination to face Doug Jones, the cycle’s most vulnerable Senate Democrat, in November. But his path is not clear, with Rep. Bradley Byrne and Tommy Tuberville, Auburn’s former head football coach, vying for a spot in an expected runoff election on March 31.
The three candidates have closely aligned with Trump in a state where, according to Morning Consult polling, roughly 3 in 5 voters approve of the president. Byrne has focused on his pro-Trump voting record and Tuberville has pitched himself as a political outsider. Sessions, meanwhile, tells Republicans he is the forefather of Trump’s hard-line immigration agenda, although his relationship with the president has been strained since his recusal from the Federal Bureau of Investigation inquiry that ended up under former special counsel Robert Mueller’s purview.
In interviews last week, Democratic and Republican strategists in Washington predicted that Sessions would earn a plurality of votes, but there was no consensus about who will join him in the runoff, nor did they think it would have a significant impact on the outcome in November.
Republicans predict an easy fight on their hands in November, with Trump atop the ticket and, more importantly, no chance that Republicans nominate a candidate as flawed as Roy Moore for the second time in three years. (Moore, who faced multiple accusations of sexual misconduct against minors, is on the Republican ballot again, but his campaign has not gained traction.)
Democrats are candid about the size of Jones’ re-election task, but they are happy with the idea of a protracted Republican primary that will burn off some of the party’s resources as Jones continues to excel at fundraising.
How do Democrats’ chosen candidates fare in North Carolina and Texas?
In North Carolina and Texas, the leading potential Democratic challengers who are both backed by Democratic groups in Washington are having to face primary elections before the real contests can begin in earnest.
In the Tar Heel State, former state Sen. Cal Cunningham, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s pick to challenge Republican Sen. Thom Tillis, one of the most vulnerable Republicans this fall, is facing state Sen. Erica Smith.
While Washington expects Cunningham to pull off a decisive victory and avoid a runoff, it has not been an easy ride. Smith’s campaign has been boosted by a Republican-aligned group that sought to meddle in the Democratic primary, and while Republicans expect Cunningham to advance, they are claiming a win in the fact that Democrats have spent some of their resources early in support of Cunningham.
In Texas, M.J. Hegar is among a dozen candidates who are vying for the Democratic nomination to face Republican Sen. John Cornyn, a relatively popular incumbent in a red state where Trump is relatively unpopular. A poll released by the University of Houston last week found Hegar in the lead but below the majority threshold to avoid a runoff in May and no clear second-place contender.
What goes down in the House battleground … in California?
After turning several California districts blue in 2018 for the first time in decades, Democrats now have to work to defend those gains. Several Republicans are facing off for a slot on the ballot to challenge House freshmen in contests where the top two candidates on primary day will face off in November.
Six Republicans are seeking a place on the ballot to challenge Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.), including Greg Raths and Don Sedgwick, though no clear front-runner has emerged. The Republican side of the race has been expensive, while Porter — facing no intraparty opposition — has out-raised the potential challengers.
In California’s 10th District, three Republicans are vying for the chance to take on incumbent Democrat Josh Harder. Ted Howze, a veterinarian, recently secured the support of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) against his chief rival, Bob Elliott, a member of the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors.
In addition to primary elections ahead of the November election, a special primary election will be held in California’s 25th District for a candidate to fill the seat left vacant by former Democratic Rep. Katie Hill, who resigned in October amid allegations of an improper relationship with a staffer. Political strategists expect Republican Steve Knight, who lost to Hill in November 2018, to make it on the ballot, as well as Democrat Christy Smith, a member of the California State Assembly.
While May’s special election, which will fill the seat through the end of the current Congress, may be a difficult hold for Democrats, the party’s operatives think they are on more solid ground to win when candidates face off again in November.
Former Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Carl DeMaio are in a tough race for a spot on the ballot in California’s open 50th District following the exit of Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), who resigned after being convicted on corruption charges. Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar, who faced Hunter in 2018, is expected to secure a spot on the ballot.
… And in Texas?
As Democrats seek to grow their majority in November, they’re trying to carve a path through Texas. Of the state’s 36 congressional districts, at least eight have been rated by the top three political handicappers — Cook Political Report, Inside Elections and Sabato’s Crystal Ball — as competitive, and just three favor Republicans.
The most competitive seat in November is the one currently occupied by Republican Rep. Will Hurd, who’s retiring at the end of his term. Democrat Gina Ortiz Jones, who in 2018 fell 926 votes short of beating the former Central Intelligence Agency officer in the state’s 23rd District, is the leading Democratic contender, but she faces four other rivals. On the GOP side, there is Tony Gonzales, who was endorsed by Hurd, and eight other primary opponents.
There’s a crowded Republican primary in Texas’ 22nd District, an open-seat race viewed as competitive since incumbent Rep. Pete Olson announced his retirement. Pierce Bush, the grandson of former President George H.W. Bush, is facing over a dozen other candidates in the race for the party’s nomination, including Kathaleen Wall, who’s secured the support of many conservative groups and national figures such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), and Greg Hill, a former U.S. Border Patrol agent.
In the 7th District, Trump has endorsed Army veteran Wesley Hunt to take on incumbent Democratic Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, who faces no primary opposition, but he has some competition, including Cindy Siegel, the former mayor of Bellaire, Texas. It’s been an expensive contest that could yet cost more, with a runoff possible.
Will Kay Granger survive?
Rep. Kay Granger, the top Republican on the House Appropriations Committee and the only Republican woman in Congress from Texas, is facing a tough contest for the party’s nomination in the state’s 12th District.
Chris Putnam, a retired businessman, has hit Granger’s conservative credentials, her extensive time in elected office in Washington and her alleged lack of loyalty to Trump (though the president has endorsed her for re-election).
Opposition to Granger — funded in part by the conservative Club for Growth — has been met with hundreds of thousands of spending from the Congressional Leadership Fund, a group aligned with House Republican leadership that’s traditionally spent its resources on beating Democrats.
Eli Yokley is a senior data reporter at Morning Consult covering politics and campaigns. @eyokley