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Primary night: Democrats plot a Midwest comeback

Democrats are hoping to kickstart a comeback in the Midwest in Tuesday’s primaries, picking candidates to take on Republican Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin and succeed Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton in Minnesota.

President Donald Trump’s victory in Wisconsin and narrow loss in Minnesota spurred renewed Democratic activism in both states. Party leaders hope to channel that enthusiasm into both governor’s races and reelecting Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), one of 10 Democratic senators up for reelection in states Trump carried. A wide field of Democrats led by state education official Tony Evers jumped in to face Walker, their longtime nemesis, while several prominent Minnesota Democrats leaped at the open governor’s race there, including Attorney General Lori Swanson and Rep. Tim Walz, as well as party-endorsed state legislator Erin Murphy.

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Fielding strong candidates who can win those gubernatorial races would help Democrats rebuild their diminished party in the Midwest and, crucially, guarantee them a seat at the table for the next round of congressional and state legislative redistricting in 2021 and 2022 — eight years after Wisconsin Republicans locked in major midterm gains by controlling the redistricting process.

“It’s a classic midterm election where the ‘out’ party has a terrific opportunity to win,” said Democratic pollster Paul Maslin. “That’s what happened the other way in in 2010 and 2014. Now it’s our turn. We don’t want to go overboard but I think we are very hopeful of reversing a lot of the Republican gains over the last several cycles.”

But Republicans want to keep building on Trump’s 2016 showing. They’ve spent more than $ 12 million in the primary to pick Baldwin’s opponent and could potentially re-nominate ex-Gov. Tim Pawlenty for his old job in Minnesota. The GOP is also targeting two Democratic-held House seats in Minnesota, where both parties are watching Tuesday’s primaries for signals about the competitiveness of the fall general elections.

Republicans are also eyeing Connecticut, where retiring Democratic Gov. Dan Malloy has low approval ratings, as an opportunity to pick off a governorship in the usually-blue Northeast. Five Republicans are jockeying for the nomination, including David Stemerman, a hedge fund founder who loaned his campaign $ 10 million and has cast himself as “a pure outsider and turnaround specialist,” said Phil Cox, the former executive director of the Republican Governors Association.

Another New England primary offers a chance at history: Vermont Democrats could nominate Christine Hallquist, who would be the first openly transgender governor in the country if she wins, to run against Republican Gov. Phil Scott.

Polls close at 7 p.m. Eastern in Vermont, 8 p.m. in Connecticut and 9 p.m. in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Here’s a state-by-state look at what’s on the ballot:


Evers, the state superintendent of education, has led in polls of the Democratic gubernatorial primary thanks to wide name recognition. But a number of other candidates are also seeking to take on Walker, including former state legislator Kelda Roys and firefighters union president Mahlon Mitchell.

The crowded Democratic primary for governor split the donor money in that race, but outside money has poured into Republicans’ Senate primary. State Sen. Leah Vukmir and Kevin Nicholson, a veteran and businessman, each have their own billionaire super PAC-funding backers. The Wisconsin GOP Party and House Speaker Paul Ryan are also backing Vukmir, but megadonor Richard Uihlein has spent $ 10 million to boost Nicholson, who has cast himself as a political outsider. Recent public polling shows the race essentially tied with a chunk of undecided voters.


Another top House race will decide House Speaker Paul Ryan’s replacement in southeastern Wisconsin, after Ryan announced that he would not seek reelection in 2018. Ryan endorsed Bryan Steil, a state board of regents member, in the Republican primary, but he must first emerge from a crowded race, which includes Paul Nehlen, a businessman who’s made anti-Semitic comments.

Randy Bryce, an ironworker who has raised millions of dollars after going viral on social media last year, and Cathy Myers, a Janesville school board member, are battling for the Democratic nomination.


Democrats hope to hold on to the governor’s mansion, but the primary highlights all the tensions currently at play in the party.

Public polling shows Swanson and Walz as frontrunners, despite state Rep. Erin Murphy’s support from the state party after winning the convention vote earlier this year. But Walz, who represented a red-tinted, rural district, has come under fire for his one-time “A” rating from the National Rifle Association. Murphy is tacking to the left, running on a progressive, Medicare-for-all platform.

On the Republican side, Pawlenty is trying to make a comeback. But the one-time presidential candidate and head of the Financial Services Roundtable, where he oversaw the finance industry’s lobbyists in Washington, has to handle a primary from Jeff Johnson. And if Pawlenty nabs the nomination, he’ll be forced to walk a careful line between alienating the Trump base and the president’s falling approval numbers in the state.

Meanwhile, Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.) is running in her first primary, seeking to complete former Sen. Al Franken’s term after he resigned over sexual harassment allegations. Republican voters are choosing GOP nominees to go up against both Smith and Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

A POLITICO illustration.

Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison, who jumped into the attorney general’s race, has also come under fire since the weekend, after the son of an ex-girlfriend accused the congressman of domestic violence. Ellison denies the allegations, but it’s not clear what kind of impact they could have on the primary to succeed Swanson as attorney general.

Down the ballot, both parties are eyeing a handful of House primaries. Republicans, hoping to offset losses elsewhere in a tough midterm election, believe they have a shot at flipping two open Minnesota House seats that Trump won by double-digits. Democratic incumbents opted against seeking reelection in both seats.

In Minnesota’s 1st District, businessman Jim Hagedorn and Carla Nelson, a state legislator, are battling to replace Walz in a district Trump carried by 15 points. Democrats expect Dan Feehan, a veteran and former Obama administration official, to carry their banner, but he’ll face an uphill battle in a rural seat that has trended rapidly away from his party.

Republicans are already touting St. Louis County Commissioner Pete Stauber, their candidate to replace retiring Rep. Rick Nolan for his Iron Range-based seat that backed Trump by 16 points. Democrats, for their part, are hoping to see former state Rep. Joe Radinovich survive a five-candidate primary, seeing him as the only Democrat with the resources to take on Stauber in the fall.

A pair of perennial battleground matchups will also be settled on Tuesday. Rep. Jason Lewis (R-Minn.) is expected to face off again against his 2016 opponent, health care executive Angie Craig. Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-Minn.) will likely face Dean Phillips, a businessman, for his suburban Minneapolis seat.


Malloy’s poor job approval numbers have put Republicans on offense. Five GOP candidates are running for a shot at the open governorship, including Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, former banking executive Bob Stefanowski, Trumbull First Selectman Tim Herbst, consulting executive Steve Obsitnik and David Stemerman, a self-funding hedge fund founder.

PLOITICO illustration.

Democrats expect to nominate Ned Lamont, a businessman who shot to fame in 2006 when he defeated Sen. Joe Lieberman in a primary, before Lieberman won the general election as an independent. Lamont has distanced himself from Malloy.

An insider-versus-outsider primary is playing out in the race to replace Democratic Rep. Elizabeth Esty, who retired after mishandling a sexual misconduct claim against a former staffer. Jahana Hayes, a first-time candidate who was named “National Teacher of the Year” in 2016, would be the first African-American to represent the state in Congress. But Mary Glassman, a longtime local politician, is seen as the frontrunner in the race.


Democrats in the state are poised to pick Christine Hallquist, the former Vermont Electric Coop CEO, as their nominee, who if elected, would be the first openly transgender woman to serve as governor.


“Christine will be a historic figure if she wins the nomination, whether or not she becomes the governor,” former Houston Mayor Annise Parker told POLITICO earlier this month. “If she becomes the governor, she has the potential to be a role model for every trans kid in America.”

But Scott, first elected in 2016, holds a wide margin in name recognition over his Democratic opponents in public polling, even though his job approval rating dropped off in the last year.

Daniel Strauss contributed reporting.

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