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Five things to watch in North Carolina, Pennsylvania primaries

A vote sign is seen during early voting in Cleveland, Ohio
Associated Press/Tony Dejak
A man votes during early voting March 13, 2020, in Cleveland.

Voters in five states will head to the polls on Tuesday to cast their ballots in some of the most crucial nominating contests of the 2022 midterm elections. 

Some of the biggest primaries will unfold in Pennsylvania and North Carolina, where Democrats and Republicans are slated to choose their nominees to fill two Senate seats. But the night will also see voters make key decisions on the future direction of both parties. 

Here are five things to watch in the May 17 primary elections.

Does Trump suffer another major loss?

Former President Trump was dealt a blow last week when his preferred candidate in Nebraska’s GOP gubernatorial primary, Charles Herbster, lost to a Republican backed by the state’s current Gov. Pete Ricketts. 

On Tuesday, he’ll face another test of his sway among GOP voters, this time in Pennsylvania. 

Trump has endorsed celebrity physician Mehmet Oz in the state’s closely watched Republican Senate primary. And while recent polling shows Oz with a narrow lead in the race, he still faces some stiff competition. 

Former hedge fund manager David McCormick has trailed Oz by low-single-digit margins for more than a month, and he’s still not far behind him. Even more recently, though, conservative commentator Kathy Barnette has surged in the polls, putting up the latest challenge to Oz’s front-runner status.

If Oz is able to pull off a win on Tuesday, it could help sharpen Trump’s argument that Herbster’s loss in Nebraska was nothing more than an anomaly in his track record. But a defeat for Oz would likely raise further questions about just how closely Republican voters are taking cues from the former president.

Does Biden’s endorsing power take a hit?

Biden has weighed into this year’s Democratic primary battles only sparingly. But his endorsing power will be on the line on Tuesday in Oregon’s 5th District, where moderate Rep. Kurt Schrader is facing a challenge from his political left. 

Progressives are lining up behind Jamie McLeod-Skinner, arguing that Schrader is an unreliable vote for Democrats’ agenda at a time when the party can’t afford any defections. 

McLeod-Skinner has racked up a number of endorsements, including from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and four of the six county Democratic parties in the district. 

Despite that, she has been heavily outspent by Schrader in the run-up to the primary. From April 1 to 27, Schrader’s campaign dropped more than $1.5 million compared to McLeod-Skinner’s $343,000, according to their latest federal filings.

A loss for Schrader on Tuesday would almost certainly be seen as a bad omen for Biden’s influence over his party, especially in a year in which his low approval ratings are already viewed as a liability for Democrats.

Can progressives notch much-needed wins?

Progressives are looking to make a comeback on Tuesday at a pivotal moment for the Democratic Party. 

While the party’s left flank has seen its profile rise in recent years, progressives have continued to run up against roadblocks in key races. Earlier this month, voters in the Cleveland area sent Rep. Shontel Brown (D-Ohio) back to Washington in a closely watched primary, passing up progressive Nina Turner for a second time in less than a year.

On Tuesday, however, progressives are hoping to reverse their fortunes. 

In Pennsylvania, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who has drawn the support of many in his party’s left wing, is heading into the state’s Democratic Senate primary as the clear favorite to win the nomination. Progressives are also backing state House Rep. Summer Lee in the primary to succeed retiring Rep. Mike Doyle (D). 

At the same time, progressives are hoping to knock off Schrader in Democratic primary for Oregon’s 5th District, arguing that the seven-term congressman’s moderate politics are out of step with the majority of his party.

Whether voters actually want to take the party in a more progressive direction, however, is one of the biggest questions heading into the primaries.

Will voters punish Cawthorn?

Rep. Madison Cawthorn drew several rivals for the Republican nomination in North Carolina’s 11th District after he decided to run in another district closer to Charlotte, only to return to his old territory later.

But despite the fact that he’s running as an incumbent, things haven’t gotten easier for him. 

Cawthorn infuriated many of his GOP colleagues earlier this year when he insinuated during a podcast interview that some of his fellow lawmakers were attending orgies and snorting cocaine. He’s also been the subject of a series of salacious revelations, including a leaked nude video.

Cawthorn has sought to brush off the attacks against him as an effort by the so-called political establishment to undermine him. Still, the risks he is facing are very real. 

The top Republicans in the state General Assembly have endorsed one of his rivals, state Sen. Chuck Edwards, in the primary, while both of his state’s U.S. senators have spoken out against him. 

Cawthorn has the endorsement of Trump, however, who doubled down on his support for the first-term congressman this week. Given his district’s conservative tilt, that could go a long way toward saving him from defeat on Tuesday.

How far right have Republican voters moved?

A handful of races on Tuesday are slated to test just how far to the right GOP primary voters have moved, with or without Trump’s influence.

In Pennsylvania, Barnette is surging in the closing days of the primary, threatening to overtake Oz in the race for the Senate nomination. While Oz may have Trump’s endorsement, Barnette has ties to her party’s far-right flank; she’s made past disparaging remarks about Islam and gay people, and previously promoted the conspiracy theory that former President Obama was secretly a Muslim.

Likewise, in the state’s GOP gubernatorial primary, Republican Doug Mastriano, who advocated for the 2020 presidential election results to be overturned, appears to be the favorite to clinch the nomination to take on Democrat Josh Shapiro in November. He scored Trump’s endorsement on Saturday.

And in Idaho, Trump’s preferred gubernatorial candidate, Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, is running to oust incumbent Gov. Brad Little in a closely watched primary. Little isn’t exactly a moderate, but McGeachin has run to his right and the two have a history of tension. 

More than once, when Little has left the state, McGeachin has signed executive orders related to the coronavirus pandemic as acting governor, only to have them rescinded by Little later on.

Regardless of who emerges from the Tuesday primaries, the contests are almost sure to say something about where GOP voters stand in the aftermath of Trump’s four years in the White House.

Tags Biden Charles Herbster David McCormick Donald Trump Doug Mastriano Joe Biden Kathy Burnette Kurt Schrader Madison Cawthorn Madison Cawthorn Mehmet Oz Mehmet Oz North Carolina Senate Race Oregon primary Pennsylvania governor's race Pennsylvania Senate race Pete Ricketts Shontel Brown Trump
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