5 things to watch in Ohio special election, primaries
Ohio is set to hold a special House election on Tuesday in a race that has morphed into a key referendum on President Trump as Republicans scramble to protect a seat that has been in their hands for years.
Trump campaigned in Ohio’s 12th District on Saturday, seeking to turn out Republican voters and erode some of the enthusiasm of Democrats, who are making a big push for the seat, betting that a win will portend a blue wave in midterm elections in the fall.
Meanwhile, four states — Kansas, Missouri, Michigan and Washington — will hold primaries. On the Democratic side, races like Kansas’s 3rd District will test the appeal of progressive candidates backed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and up-and-coming star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
On the Republican side, the focus is on Kansas, where Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a conservative firebrand who won an endorsement from Trump on Monday, is challenging incumbent Gov. Jeff Colyer for the GOP gubernatorial nomination.
Here’s what to watch in Tuesday’s primaries and the special election in Ohio:
Will Trump pull out a win in Ohio?
What began as a sleepy race between Republican state Sen. Troy Balderson and Democratic Franklin County Recorder Danny O’Connor has broken into a bitter, nail-biting fight for Ohio’s 12th District – with Trump at the center.
The president has focused on the election in recent weeks, casting it as a make-or-break moment for the GOP and his agenda ahead of the midterms.
Trump has offered a series of endorsements for Balderson via Twitter and traveled to the district on Saturday, predicting Republicans will ride a “Red Wave” in the fall, starting with a win in Ohio on Tuesday.
The race shouldn’t be this close: Trump won the suburban district in 2016 by 11 points. And the seat, previously held by retired Rep. Pat Tiberi (R), has been held by Republicans since 1980.
But Trump’s popularity is stuck in the mid-40s nationally, giving hope to Democrats they can win the Ohio seat. Democrats need to pick up 23 seats to take over the House in November.
The Ohio race has therefore become a key part of Trump’s appeal, and turned into a must-win for Republicans who are seeking to tie O’Connor to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
Trump’s impact has been less in doubt in Republican primaries, where the president has become the decisive kingmaker, with the ability to boost candidates with a single tweet.
But whether those Trump-picked candidates will go on to win in the fall is in doubt. On Monday, Trump offered a last-minute endorsement of Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who is challenging incumbent Gov. Jeff Colyer for the GOP gubernatorial nomination.
In doing so, Trump threw his support behind a conservative firebrand who has embraced some of Trump’s most controversial and extreme positions.
Colyer has warned that nominating Kobach could hand the election to Democrats. Kobach, on the other hand, has argued that Colyer lacks the appeal to motivate conservative voters and says he can win by turning out conservative Republican voters.
Trump also endorsed Iraq War pilot John James over investor and businessman Sandy Pensler in Michigan’s GOP Senate primary. Once a toss-up, the race now has James ahead in recent polling. The winner will face Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow.
Can Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez be Democratic kingmakers?
Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez, a self-described democratic socialist who won a huge upset victory in a New York primary in June, are bringing their star power to the campaign trail to elevate progressive candidates in tough primaries.
Victories by candidates endorsed by Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez would elevate the pair’s clout and influence in Democratic politics, especially as Sanders considers another presidential bid in 2020.
But Sanders and his allied group, Our Revolution, have had mixed results. In House races, only two of five Democrats he’s endorsed have won their contests, though he’s had a better record in gubernatorial primaries, where his preferences easily won in both Georgia and Maryland.
Meanwhile, Ocasio-Cortez has gone on an endorsing spree after her primary victory, backing candidates in crowded primaries and raising anger among some Democratic leaders that she will end up unseating more established Democratic incumbents.
Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez travelled to Kansas last month to campaign for labor attorney Brent Welder, who’s in a competitive six-way primary in the 3rd District. And they are also campaigning for Democrat James Thompson, who’s expected to easily win his primary and face Rep. Ron Estes (R-Kan.) in a rematch of last year’s special election.
In separate appearances, the two also stumped on Sunday for Democrat Abdul El-Sayed, a progressive underdog running in a three-way primary for Michigan governor. If he can pull it off, El-Sayed, a 33-year-old local public health official, would be the country’s first Muslim governor.
Can progressive candidates prevail in red states?
A push by Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez to campaign actively in Democratic primaries is raising concerns that Democrats will nominate candidates too far to the left for their districts — going against a push by national party leaders to recruit more ideologically diverse candidates who can better compete in more conservative states.
Progressive candidates have been gaining momentum in crowded primaries this cycle, notching significant victories in predictably blue states like California and New York. But they are also making a push in more conservative states, including deep-red Nebraska.
The latest test for progressives will be in Kansas’s 3rd District, where six Democrats are vying to take on GOP Rep. Kevin Yoder in a suburban district that has voted for both Republicans and Democrats — and that Clinton won in 2016 by only 1 point.
Labor lawyer Welder, who’s endorsed by Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez, has made national headlines as an unabashed progressive running on a platform of “Medicare for all” and a $15 minimum wage. GOP outside groups have already targeted Welder in ads, framing him as “too progressive for Kansas.”
Polling is limited going into Tuesday, but the primary appears to be a three-way contest between Welder; Sharice Davids, an openly gay attorney; and high school teacher Tom Niermann.
Davids, a former professional MMA fighter who would become the first Native American woman elected to Congress, has gained steam on the strength of her biography and resume as a former White House fellow. She’s backed by EMILY’s List, which has pumped in $600,000 in support.
Niermann, who has made an appeal to more moderate voters, has led the pack in fundraising. He centered his campaign around gun safety and education — a top issue in Kansas due to tax cuts by former Gov. Sam Brownback that made deep cuts to education.
Is Pelosi still an effective target for the GOP?
Once again, Republicans are resorting to their favorite line of attack: tying Democratic opponents to Nancy Pelosi.
In a handful of races, Republicans have sought to cast Pelosi as a sort of boogeyman of the left, warning that each vote for a Democratic candidate is ostensibly a vote for the minority leader’s agenda.
That’s particularly true in the special election in Ohio. Though O’Connor has repeatedly called for new Democratic leadership, he has come under Republican attack after being forced to acknowledge in an MSNBC interview that he would back whoever the Democrats propose as leader, including potentially Pelosi.
Balderson and outside Republican groups have seized on that slip in recent weeks, running a slew of ads accusing O’Connor of being a shill for Pelosi. The Congressional Leadership Fund — a PAC aligned with Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) — has used part of a $2.6 million ad buy in Ohio to hammer O’Connor on the issue, for example.
Whether that is an effective message remains to be seen. More than two dozen Democratic House candidates have already said they do not plan to support Pelosi for a leadership post or have called for new leadership altogether — an approach that Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.) used to great effect to win a special House election in March.
Defeating O’Connor on Tuesday could be seen by Republicans as a sign that their strategy is working, and further fuel efforts to tie Democrats to the party’s longtime leader in the House.
Will there be more evidence that this is the year of the woman?
The record number of women running for public office is shaping into a narrative of 2018 as “the Year of the Woman.”
Several primaries on Tuesday could serve to bolster that storyline if women candidates emerge victorious, joining high-profile winners like Stacey Abrams, who won Georgia’s Democratic gubernatorial primary in May and would become the first black woman elected as governor should she win in November.
In Kansas’s 3rd district, Davids, the openly gay Native American attorney, is vying against a crowded field of Democrats to challenge Yoder in the general election.
A number of races in Michigan are also key to watch. State Sen. Gretchen Whitmer is widely considered the front-runner in her state’s Democratic gubernatorial primary.
In Michigan’s race for retiring GOP Rep. David Trott’s seat, Lena Epstein, who co-chaired Trump’s 2016 campaign in Michigan, is leading in fundraising in the GOP primary. And on the Democratic side, Haley Stevens, who’s been endorsed by Hillary Clinton, and Fayrouz Saad are competing in a five-candidate primary in the competitive race.
In Washington state, Democrat Kim Schrier is leading the pack in the primaries for the state’s 8th District, setting her up for a likely face-off against Republican state Sen. Dino Rossi in November. Candidates from both parties have to compete on the same ballot in the state, and the top two vote-getters will face off in November, regardless of political party.
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