Primaries To Watch: Will Trump Endorsements Be Enough To Protect GOP Incumbents?

Primaries To Watch: Will Trump Endorsements Be Enough To Protect GOP Incumbents?

3:18pm Jun 26, 2018
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster waves next to President Trump during a rally at Airport High School in West Columbia, S.C., on Monday.
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster waves next to President Trump during a rally at Airport High School in West Columbia, S.C., on Monday.
Mandel Ngan / AFP/Getty Images

President Trump has been burned by making endorsements in the past that didn't pan out (twice in Alabama's special Senate election last year), but he has backed primary candidates in two key races being decided Tuesday.

Whether the president's backing can lift his chosen candidates to victory will be put to the test, including in South Carolina where he and Vice President Pence campaigned in recent days.

Both parties are seeing ideological divisions drawn across party contests in seven states. Several Democratic incumbents are facing primary challenges from the left, while there are fights between the more conservative and establishment wings of the GOP.

Meanwhile, more than 80,000 voters in Maryland may need to file provisional ballots, because of a technical glitch with voter information that was updated through the state's Motor Vehicle Administration.

Here's what to watch in the New York, Maryland, Utah, Colorado and Oklahoma primaries, along with runoffs in South Carolina and Mississippi.

Trump endorsements on the line

One of the marquee races is in South Carolina, where Gov. Henry McMaster is trying to fend off wealthy businessman John Warren in a runoff after falling short of a majority in the five-way Republican primary two weeks ago.

McMaster has been one of Trump's most loyal allies, as the first statewide official in South Carolina to endorse him back in January 2016. Trump repaid the favor with an election eve rally. On Monday, the president acknowledged his own record is on the line if McMaster doesn't win, which is a real possibility.

"They will say, 'Donald Trump suffered a major, major defeat in the great state of South Carolina. It was a humiliating defeat for Donald Trump.' So please get your asses out tomorrow and vote," Trump told a West Columbia crowd Monday night in a stemwinder of a speech that mentioned the incumbent governor only briefly, though he joined Trump onstage at the beginning.

The president's other major endorsement being tested tonight is in New York. Trump didn't campaign for Rep. Dan Donovan, but allies for the congressman say that the president's tweet last month endorsing the incumbent over former Rep. Michael Grimm in the Staten Island-based 11th Congressional District helped boost his chances in their bitter primary.

Grimm has tried to campaign as the more pro-Trump candidate. The former congressman held the seat before he was forced to resign as he pleaded guilty to tax evasion charges and spent seven months in prison.

But in his tweet endorsing Donovan, Trump cited last year's Alabama Senate loss as a warning that Grimm would be unelectable in a general election.

That's exactly what national Republicans fear and Democrats are hoping for, enthused by their likely nominee Max Rose, an Army veteran who is expected to win his primary.

Progressive vs. establishment in Democratic races

The Democratic gubernatorial primary in Maryland highlights the differing approaches battling for supremacy in that party. Former NAACP President Ben Jealous has the endorsement of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and other progressive figures. But Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker has wrapped up the support of much of the state's political establishment, such as Sen. Chris Van Hollen and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer.

Both candidates are African-American and would be the first black governor in Maryland history if they win — and only the third across all 50 states — but whoever wins will have a difficult race against incumbent GOP Gov. Larry Hogan. Even though Maryland is traditionally a blue state, the centrist Hogan remains extremely popular and has been a frequent critic of Trump.

Several New York Democratic incumbents are also facing somewhat vigorous primary challenges on Tuesday. House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joe Crowley — who is considered a possible contender to lead House Democrats if Nancy Pelosi either steps aside or is ousted after the midterms — is squaring off against 28-year-old activist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in an increasingly diverse Queens and Bronx district.

The Washington Post's Dave Weigel reports that three other New York City Democratic members — Reps. Carolyn Maloney, Yvette Clarke and Eliot Engel — are also facing primary challenges of note.

Several competitive New York House seats are also a key part of Democrats' calculus to winning back the House, and how primaries play out will influence the races in the fall.

In the 24th District, Navy veteran and former Syracuse mayoral candidate Juanita Perez Williams has been endorsed by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee as the stronger choice to challenge GOP Rep. John Katko. But she first must defeat college professor Dana Balter, who is running as the more progressive pick with the backing of MoveOn.org and all four county committees, who have complained the DCCC meddled in the race. Crowded Democratic primaries in the 1st District to take on Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin and in the 19th District with Republican Rep. John Faso are also worth watching.

In Colorado, Democrats have been angling for a long time to take out Republican Rep. Mike Coffman in his suburban Denver district that Hillary Clinton carried by 9 points. The DCCC has also endorsed attorney Jason Crow, and he is expected to easily best energy consultant Levi Tillemann, who had been pressured by Hoyer, the House Democratic whip, to abandon his bid.

Republican divides on display

Safe-open-seat contests in South Carolina and Oklahoma will also impact the direction of the House GOP conference.

In Oklahoma's open 1st District, where Jim Bridenstine stepped down after he was confirmed as NASA administrator, the conservative House Freedom Caucus and Club For Growth are backing Iraq War veteran Andy Coleman in the crowded GOP primary, while Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., has endorsed the more libertarian-leaning state Sen. Nathan Dahm. Meanwhile, the centrist Republican Main Street Partnership is backing businessman Kevin Hern.

In South Carolina's 4th District runoff, bombastic former state Sen. Lee Bright is also endorsed by the Club for Growth as well as Iowa Rep. Steve King and is running as the most conservative pick to succeed retiring GOP Rep. Trey Gowdy. State Sen. William Timmons has more establishment support, with the backing of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.

In Colorado, Rep. Doug Lamborn faces several primary challengers after nearly failing to make the ballot. Initially he had been thrown off after district voters filed a lawsuit arguing his petition signatures were invalid because the people he hired to gather them were not Colorado residents, as required by state law. But he was put back on the ballot by a federal judge.

Romney's next step toward the Senate

Former 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney is expected to easily win the GOP nomination for Senate over state Rep. Mike Kennedy in the race to succeed retiring Sen. Orrin Hatch.

The former Massachusetts governor had been a vocal Trump critic, even excoriating him as a "phony" and a "fraud" during the 2016 campaign. And while Romney is definitely not a glowing fan of the president, he has muted his criticism somewhat and Trump has even endorsed him.

While not backing Trump enough has been potentially fatal in other GOP races, nearly one-fourth of voters in the conservative state voted for a third-party candidate in 2016 instead of Trump, who took only 45 percent of the vote. Romney remains very popular in this heavily Mormon state, where he helped save the 2002 Winter Olympics.

A potentially historic first in Colorado governor

There's a battle to succeed term-limited Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper in Colorado, which could be history-making. Democratic Rep. Jared Polis is the favorite to capture his party's nomination, but EMILY's List is backing former state Treasurer Cary Kennedy. While Democratic women have sailed in House races this year, they've had more trouble in gubernatorial contests. If Polis wins the nomination and then is victorious in November, he would be the first openly gay man ever elected governor in the U.S.

On the GOP side, state Treasurer Walker Stapleton is seen as the front-runner, though he has been attacked by his chief rival, former state Rep. Victor Mitchell, because he is a Bush family cousin, saying that means Stapleton hasn't been loyal enough to Trump. Stapleton isn't the only political scion in the race — investment banker Doug Robinson is a nephew of Romney's.

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