4 Super Tuesday takeaways in the battle for Congress

Five states held congressional primaries Tuesday

Texas GOP Rep. Kay Granger defeated her primary challenger on Tuesday.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Texas GOP Rep. Kay Granger defeated her primary challenger on Tuesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 4, 2020 at 5:25am, Updated at 6:01pm

After winning a slew of Super Tuesday states, former Vice President Joe Biden told his supporters that Democrats need a nominee who can help the party keep the House and win the Senate this fall.

But several of those down-ballot contests in states that voted Tuesday night remain in flux.

Five of the Super Tuesday states hosted primaries for congressional seats: Alabama, Arkansas, California, North Carolina and Texas. All but Arkansas are expected to play host to competitive congressional races in November.  

Votes are still being counted in some of those races, some of which will be critical in the battle for Congress in 2020. But here are four takeaways from the results reported so far: 

1. It’s good to be an incumbent

Two Texas lawmakers fended off primary challenges. Longtime Republican Rep. Kay Granger defeated former tech executive Chris Putnam in the 12th District, which includes Fort Worth.  While in South Texas, Democrat Henry Cuellar survived a challenge from his left, defeating immigration lawyer and his onetime intern Jessica Cisneros.

Granger stepped up her fundraising after Putnam showed early signs of a potentially viable challenge and the anti-tax Club for Growth pledged to spend heavily against her. But Granger proved to be a formidable incumbent with long ties to the district. She was first elected to Congress in 1996 after serving as mayor of Fort Worth. And she’s known for delivering government spending to the district and supporting major employers, including defense and aerospace giant Lockheed Martin. 

Loading the player...

In the 28th District, Cuellar, one of the more conservative members of the Democratic Caucus, finished ahead of Cisneros, 51.6 percent to 48.4 percent with 99 percent of precincts reporting. 

Cisneros put the race in play with significant fundraising, and she also had support from a constellation of liberal groups and high-profile Democrats. Ahead of the primary, EMILY’s List spent more than $1.2 million against Cuellar, who is seen as one of the last remaining congressional Democrats opposed to abortion rights. 

2. Trump still a key factor in GOP primaries

Initial primary results underscored President Donald Trump’s influence in Republican contests. Trump had endorsed Granger in her primary, which likely helped her win over voters like Frank Zamarron, a 53-year-old truck repair shop manager from Parker County. Zamarron told CQ Roll Call late last month that he would be backing Granger in the primary because of Trump.

“If Trump’s for her, I’m for her,” he said. 

While a few races where Trump weighed in remain uncalled, several of his preferred candidates fared well Tuesday.

Trump endorsed two candidates in safe Republican open seats in Texas. In the 11th District, former National Security Council adviser August Pfluger avoided a runoff. And in the 13th, former White House physician Ronny Jackson advanced to the May 26 runoff — something Trump had called for on the eve of the primary.

Another Trump endorsee who avoided a runoff was former Irving Mayor Beth Van Duyne, who won the GOP primary in the Dallas-area 24th District. Democrats are targeting the suburban seat, which opened after longtime Republican Rep. Kenny Marchant opted against reelection.

Trump also backed Army veteran Wesley Hunt, who avoided a runoff in the Houston-area 7th District, which Republicans are looking to flip this fall.

And Trump's preferred candidate in the open seat race in California's 8th District, Assemblyman Jay Obernolte, will advance to the November election according to the AP, which called the race on Wednesday.

One race where Trump had not weighed in was the Alabama Senate primary, where his former attorney general, Jeff Sessions, was running for his old seat. Sessions did not leave the Trump administration on good terms, with the president slamming him over his recusal from the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. 

Sessions finished second in the primary and is headed to a March 31 runoff against former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville.

Trump signaled on Twitter that he had not forgotten their differences, saying Sessions' failure to lock up a majority in the primary shows "what happens to somone who loyally gets appointed Attorney General of the United States & then doesn't have the wisdom or courage to stare down & end the phony Russia Witch Hunt."

3. Mixed results for GOP women

Primaries have been obstacles for GOP women in the past, and female Republicans running in Super Tuesday primaries had mixed results. 

As the most senior woman of her party in Congress, Granger’s victory was critical for GOP women’s groups, which are looking to grow the number of female House Republicans from their current total of just 13. In California, Republicans Young Kim and Michelle Steel also advanced to the November election in the 39th and 48th districts, respectively. Kim and Steel had the backing of multiple women’s groups and were expected to advance to the general election, under the state’s top-two primary system. 

In Texas, Van Duyne and Genevieve Collins in the Dallas-area 32nd District advanced to November, though another GOP woman in a competitive race fell short. In the Houston-area 7th District, former Bellaire Mayor Cindy Siegel was unable to force Hunt into a runoff.

And in Alabama’s 2nd, small-business owner Jessica Taylor was shut out of a runoff in the open-seat race to replace retiring GOP Rep. Martha Roby.  She got 19.9 percent of the vote in a seven-person Republican primary, but finished third behind Barry Moore, who got 20.4 percent, results tallied by The AP showed.

4. DSCC gets its picks (so far)

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee decided to weigh in early on Senate races in North Carolina and Texas, and the committee’s preferred candidates prevailed on Tuesday, though only one of them managed to avoid a runoff.

In North Carolina, Army veteran and former state Sen. Cal Cunningham easily won his primary despite GOP meddling in the race that forced Cunningham and his allies to spend ahead of Tuesday. He will face Republican incumbent Thom Tillis in November, race that Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates a Toss-up

And in Texas, Air Force Veteran MJ Hegar secured the top spot in the Democratic primary. But to take on three-term GOP Sen. John Cornyn in November, she first has to win a May 26 runoff. It was not clear as of press time whom she would face in the runoff, but the DSCC touted Hegar’s strength heading into May.

“MJ Hegar’s impressive performance is proof of the strength of her campaign and underscores that she is in the best position to flip this seat in November,” DSCC Chairwoman Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada said in a statement. Inside Elections rates the Texas Senate race Likely Republican.

Nathan L. Gonzales contributed to this report.