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Key primaries in August will help shape midterms

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August is shaping up to be a blockbuster month as a series of primaries from Arizona to Kansas will start finalizing the shape of races in the critical contest for Congress.

The primaries are being dominated by intense partisanship on both sides, setting up what could be a midterm election shaped by sharply divergent policy stances and one where President Trump will loom large.

Republican voters in Arizona and Wisconsin will pick their Senate nominees after brutal, costly primaries where support for Trump has become a key litmus test. Trump remains overwhelmingly popular among the Republican base, raising concerns about the emergence of ultra-conservative candidates who will struggle to win over general election voters.

On the Democratic side, progressive candidates will battle for the nomination against more centrist candidates in places like Kansas, exposing two competing visions for the future of the party.

But Democrats, mindful of the need to compete in more conservative districts that will determine whether they can retake Congress, are also showing a more pragmatic side. Ohio will be a test case of this approach in a special House election on Aug. 7, with a Democratic candidate who has said he won’t support House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Below is a breakdown of the big primaries and a special election to watch next month:

Aug. 7 (Kansas and Michigan primaries and Ohio special election)

Four states will hold pivotal House and Senate primaries, but the special election for retired Rep. Pat Tiberi’s (R-Ohio) seat will be the one to watch as Democrats assess their chances of taking back the House in November.

The once sleepy race between Republican state Sen. Troy Balderson and Democrat Danny O’Connor has gotten an injection of cash and is now seen as a “toss up” by The Cook Political Report.

The GOP’s Congressional Leadership Fund went in early with more than $1.5 million in ads tarring O’Connor, a young Franklin Country recorder in charge of preserving real estate and property records, as a liberal with ties to Pelosi.

But O’Connor, like many other moderate Democrats, has said he won’t support Pelosi if elected. National Democrats also waded into the race last week with $240,000 in ad reservations and are hoping to turn O’Connor into another Conor Lamb, a young Democrat who defeated a more experienced politician in a Pennsylvania House special election in March.

A victory or close margin for Democrats would give them an uplifting shot in the arm before November in what has been a historically GOP district that Trump won by more than 11 points. Trump has endorsed Balderson, potentially motivating conservatives in a state the president won by 8 points. 

Another race to watch on Aug. 7 is Kansas’s 3rd District, a must-win district for Democrats that Hillary Clinton narrowly carried in 2016. Though the area tends to lean to the GOP, progressive candidates are competing against more centrist ones in the crowded primary.

Democrat Brent Welder, a former delegate for Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) presidential campaign, has gained some national star power, with help on the campaign trail from Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who defeated Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) in a June primary.

Welder argues that Democrats haven’t been able to unseat Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.) because the party chooses moderates who haven’t staked out firm positions, and he is campaigning with progressive stances including calling for a single-payer health-care system.

Welder faces five other Democrats, including teacher Tom Niermann, a more centrist candidate who’s the top fundraiser, and Sharice Davids, a progressive backed by EMILY’s List who could be the first Native American woman elected to Congress.

The winner will face Yoder, a congressman who’s been endorsed by Trump. The race is listed as “lean Republican” by Cook.

Meanwhile, Michigan will have a bevy of primary activity in both Senate and House races.

Republicans Sandy Pensler, a businessman, and John James, a former Army pilot, are vying to take on Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.). Stabenow is running for reelection in a state that Trump narrowly won, but Democrats are favored to hold it.

There are also wide-open Democratic primaries for competitive GOP-held seats that Democrats are heavily targeting in November, including Rep. Fred Upton’s (R-Mich.) seat and Rep. Dave Trott (R-Mich.).

Aug. 14 (Minnesota and Wisconsin)

Minnesota is poised to be one of the epicenters of the midterms, with an expansive battlefield that spans both Senate seats, the governor’s mansion and nearly half a dozen competitive House seats. The state will likely play a big role in which party controls the House.

Although Minnesota went to Clinton in 2016, Republicans believe they have a genuine shot at picking up seats, including the one being vacated by retiring Rep. Rick Nolan (D-Minn.). Nolan won reelection in 2016, even as Trump carried his district by more than 15 points.

When the seat opened up, Republicans quickly coalesced around one of their top recruits, retired police officer Pete Stauber. Trump campaigned with Stauber in June.

Meanwhile, Democrats face a wide-open primary among five Democrats in a seat they must protect. There’s no front-runner, but Democrats Joe Radinovich and Jason Metsa have emerged as the top two fundraisers.

In neighboring Wisconsin, Republicans will decide between state Sen. Leah Vukmir and Marine veteran and businessman Kevin Nicholson in the race against Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.).

The Senate GOP primary has become bitter and costly, with billionaire donors lending a hand to both Vukmir and Nicholson. And, like other heavily contested GOP Senate primaries, support for Trump has played a big role.

Nicholson, a first-time candidate, has run as a political outsider and had an early lead in primary polls. But he’s been dogged by his past as a former president of the College Democrats of America.

Vukmir, who has a conservative track record in the legislature, has gained some late momentum. The latest public poll shows her ahead by 2 points. She also won notable endorsements from the state GOP party and Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).

The Senate race isn’t the only interesting primary in Wisconsin. The Democratic primary in the race to fill Ryan’s seat, which appeared all but settled months ago, has now become hotly contested.

Ironworker Randy Bryce came on the scene last June with a viral video that helped him become a fundraising powerhouse, bringing in more than $6 million.

But Bryce is facing a tightening primary against school board member Cathy Myers, which has gotten increasingly nasty. Myers is alleging that Bryce improperly used $7,000 in campaign funds to settle a personal legal scuffle. And Bryce has faced a barrage of bad headlines, most recently that he was arrested for driving under the influence two decades ago.

The Republican side is more settled, with Republican Bryan Steil, an attorney endorsed by Ryan, expected to win.

Aug. 28 (Arizona and Florida)

Republicans hope to hold on to the seat being vacated by Arizona GOP Sen. Jeff Flake likely hinges on who wins the primary.

Establishment favorite Rep. Martha McSally (R) faces a tough challenge from former state Sen. Kelli Ward (R), an immigration hard-liner who has made the race largely about her unequivocal support for Trump. Still, McSally has led most recent primary polls.

In her Senate campaign, McSally has touted her work on immigration and strengthening border security, which are hallmark issues for Trump. But Ward has turned up the heat on McSally, accusing her of not backing the president in 2016 and being soft on border security.

Conservative hard-liner and former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio is also running in the primary. The winner will face a formidable challenger, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.).

And in the race to replace McSally, former Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.) is looking to make a political comeback in a new district. Even with national Democrats’ support, Kirkpatrick faces a tough primary against Democrat Matt Heinz, who was the 2016 nominee. The eventual nominee is expected to face Republican Lea Marquez Peterson.

Florida will feature competitive primaries on both sides in the race to replace GOP Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who is retiring. Democrats are expected to flip her district, which Clinton carried by 20 points.

Democrat Donna Shalala, a Health and Human Services secretary in former President Clinton’s administration, is the favored candidate to win the primary given her name recognition and fundraising. Democrat David Richardson, who’s been backed by Sanders-aligned Our Revolution, has gone on the attack, criticizing Shalala about mishandling a sexual assault case when she was president of University of Miami.

Tags Ann Kirkpatrick Bernie Sanders Dave Trott Debbie Stabenow Donald Trump Fred Upton Hillary Clinton Ileana Ros-Lehtinen Jeff Flake Kevin Yoder Martha McSally Nancy Pelosi Pat Tiberi Paul Ryan Rick Nolan Tammy Baldwin

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