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Biggest primaries to watch in 2018: Grudge matches, ideological battles, wild cards

by Mark Murray /
Image: House Homeland Security Border and Maritime Security Subcommittee Chairwoman Rep. Martha McSally (R-AZ) speaks during a news conference on Jan. 10, 2018.
House Homeland Security Border and Maritime Security Subcommittee Chairwoman Rep. Martha McSally (R-AZ) speaks during a news conference on Jan. 10, 2018.Jacquelyn Martin / AP

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WASHINGTON — The 2018 primary season — featuring ideological battles, grudge matches, free-for-alls and California’s “jungle primaries” — officially kicks off less than a month from now, when Texas holds its intraparty contests on March 6.

The action starts off a bit slowly in the Lone Star State: The headliner contests are the Democratic race for governor, as well as a crowded Republican field to replace retiring Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas.

Illinois goes two weeks later, when Democrats hold their competitive gubernatorial primary for the opportunity to face vulnerable Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, and when they also wage a battle over abortion rights in a Chicago-area congressional district.

Then the excitement really begins in May, when Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Georgia all hold their primaries. The primary season ends in September — less than two months before the general election races that will decide control of the U.S. House of Representatives, U.S. Senate and dozens of gubernatorial mansions across the country.

Here are some of the most important primary races to watch over the next few months:

The GOP’s ideological battles

Arizona Senate (August 28): In the race to replace retiring Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., it’s establishment-backed Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., versus conservative firebrand Kelli Ward, versus former Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whom President Donald Trump pardoned last summer. The winner faces likely Democratic nominee Kyrsten Sinema.

Nevada Senate (June 12): Incumbent — and vulnerable — Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., is getting a primary challenge from the right from Danny Tarkanian, who has lost in previous House and Senate contests. Heller appears to be safer in this race after former White House strategist Steve Bannon’s ex-communication, as well as after passage of the GOP tax law. But the race still bears watching.

Virginia Senate (June 12): The main candidates are Corey Stewart, who defended Confederate monuments during his 2017 primary race against Ed Gillespie, and 2013 Lt. Gov. nominee E.W. Jackson, who has accused Stewart of having “dealings” with the Muslim Brotherhood. Buckle up. The winner takes on Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va.

The Democrats’ ideological battles

Illinois House-3 (March 20): Businesswoman Marie Newman is challenging incumbent Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Ill., over the issue of abortion; Lipinski opposes abortion rights, while Newman supports them. Meanwhile, the only Republican on the ballot in the district is Arthur Jones, a Holocaust denier and white supremacist.

Maryland Senate (June 26): Chelsea Manning, who was convicted of giving U.S. military documents to WikiLeaks but whose sentence was commuted by former President Barack Obama, is challenging incumbent Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md. But there are questions about Manning’s eligibility, given that she’s technically still on Army active duty when military personnel are prohibited from running for office.

Maryland Governor (June 26): In the crowded field to take on Republican Gov. Larry Hogan in November, former NAACP head Ben Jealous, who backed Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic race, supports a single-payer health-care system. A recent poll found Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker leading the early pack, but with 33 percent of Democratic voters saying they’re undecided.

The grudge matches

Indiana Senate — GOP (May 8): The feud between Republican primary opponents Luke Messer and Todd Rokita dates back to their days in college. As Politico put it last year, “Messer … has already accused Rokita of attacking his wife and ‘spreading lies’ about his record. Rokita … has questioned his rival’s mental health, calling Messer ‘unhinged’ and a ‘ticking time bomb.’” The beneficiary could be state Rep. Mike Braun. They’re all vying to take on incumbent Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind.

Georgia Governor — Dem (May 22): It’s Stacey vs. Stacey in Georgia’s Democratic gubernatorial primary — state House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams (who is African-American) and former state Rep. Stacey Evans (who is white). Abrams has backing from national Democratic groups, while Evans has support from much of the state Democratic establishment. How contentious has the race been? Liberal activists shouted down Evans at last summer’s Netroots Nation conference.

The free-for-alls

Florida Governor (August 28): A crowded field of Democrats — led by former Congresswoman Gwen Graham (daughter of former Sen. and Gov. Bob Graham), Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum and Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine — is vying to be governor in arguably the most important state in American politics. The top Republicans to replace term-limited GOP Gov. Rick Scott are Rep. Ron DeSantis (who already has the backing of President Trump) and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.

Ohio Governor (May 8): If Florida isn’t the most important state in politics, then Ohio is, and the Democrats running to replace term-limited GOP Gov. John Kasich include former Consumer Financial Protection Bureau head Richard Cordray, former presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich, former state Rep. Connie Pillich and state Sen. Joe Schiavoni. The GOP contest is a race between state Attorney General Mike DeWine and Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor.

West Virginia Senate — GOP (May 8): The Republican primary to take on incumbent Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., is essentially a three-man race between Congressman Evan Jenkins, state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and former Massie Energy CEO Don Blankenship, who was convicted of violating mine-safety standards following a deadly mine accident.

California’s “jungle primaries”

In the Golden State’s June 5 primaries, the top two finishers — regardless of party — advance to the general election. And that system will likely help Democrats in the top-of-the-ticket contests, with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif, and Kevin de Leon leading the Senate field, and with Gavin Newsom and Antonio Villaraigosa ahead in the race for governor.

But in key open-seat congressional districts that Democrats are trying to win from Republicans — CA-39 and CA-49 — it’s possible that a glut of Democratic candidates could end up shutting out the party from finishing in the Top 2.

February’s primary showdown in Arizona

While Texas holds the first official primaries of the 2018 cycle, the intraparty races to fill the congressional seat vacated by Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., take place this month on February 27.

The Republican contest features state Senate President Debbie Lesko, state Sen. Steve Montenegro, former state Rep. Phil Lovas and former state corporation commissioner Bob Stump.

The seat is expected to stay in GOP hands in the April 24 general election.

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