6 things to watch in Maine, Texas and Alabama primaries

Three Senate matchups and multiple House contests will be decided

Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions is in a primary runoff Tuesday for his old Alabama Senate seat.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions is in a primary runoff Tuesday for his old Alabama Senate seat. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted July 13, 2020 at 6:00am

Voters in three states will head to the polls Tuesday to decide the matchups in a trio of competitive Senate races and a slew of House contests.

Primaries in Maine, and primary runoffs in Texas and Alabama, were initially delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Campaigns in Texas and Alabama have also had to navigate a recent spike in COVID-19 cases. 

Tuesday’s primaries may follow a common theme in 2020: waiting on results. 

In Maine, not only will more voters cast their ballots by mail, but the state uses ranked-choice voting, which could further delay results in the competitive three-way Republican primary in the 2nd District. 

Under the ranked-choice system, voters order candidates from most to least favorite. If no one gets over 50 percent outright, then the last-place finisher is eliminated, with his or her votes reallocated to the other candidates based on the voters’ second choices. This repeats until someone crosses 50 percent. Counting in a race that requires ranked-choice voting would extend beyond election night.  

Here are six things to watch: 

1. Will the DSCC get its picks? 

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has been aggressively endorsing its preferred candidates in targeted Senate races this cycle, and two of them are facing primaries Tuesday. 

In Maine, the party establishment’s pick, Sara Gideon, seems to be a shoo-in for the nomination. The Maine House speaker has not only dramatically eclipsed her two remaining primary opponents in fundraising, but she has also hauled in more money than longtime GOP incumbnet Sen. Susan Collins, who is among the chamber’s most vulnerable members. The National Republican Senatorial Committee disclosed spending $2.3 million against Gideon in June.

Gideon, with nearly $5.5 million in the bank on June 24, had more cash on hand than Collins, who reported holding slightly more than $5 million. So long as she beats activist Betsy Sweet and lawyer Bre Kidman on Tuesday as expected, Gideon stands to gain an additional trove valued at about $3.7 million, contributions earmarked for Collins’ challenger.

In Texas, the DSCC launched a joint television ad with its endorsed candidate, Air Force veteran MJ Hegar. She faces state Sen. Royce West in the primary runoff to take on GOP Sen. John Cornyn. Hegar led a crowded primary field in the March 3 primary, with 22 percent of the vote to 14 percent for West. 

Hegar and her allies have since outspent West. As of June 24, her campaign war chest was 10 times the size of West’s, with $1.6 million on hand compared to his $160,000. 

EMILY’s List has poured money into the race to bolster Hegar, with its independent expenditure arm dropping nearly $1.1 million since the March primary. Outside groups backing West, including political arms of the Communications Workers of America and The Collective PAC, which supports Black candidates, have spent a combined $90,000 on the runoff. 

2. Jeff Sessions faces political demise

Another vulnerable senator’s opponent will be decided Tuesday. In Alabama, GOP voters will choose between former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville in the race to take on Democratic Sen. Doug Jones.

Sessions is making a run for his old Senate seat, which he vacated to join the Trump administration. But President Donald Trump, who has sharply criticized Sessions for recusing himself during the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, has endorsed Tuberville.

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Sessions has the backing of some of his former Senate colleagues, including Alabama’s senior senator, Richard C. Shelby. But Trump’s endorsement may carry the most weight in the Yellowhammer State, which he won by 28 points in 2018.

Tuberville has also benefited from more outside spending in the race. Nearly $1 million has been spent since the primary, the vast majority from the anti-tax Club for Growth Action, which is supporting the former football coach. 

3. More familiar faces

Two GOP runoffs in Texas also feature familiar faces. In the 17th District, anchored in Waco and College Station, former Rep. Pete Sessions is looking to return to the House after losing reelection in the Dallas-area 32nd District in 2018. He faces businesswoman Renee Swann, who has the endorsement of retiring GOP Rep. Bill Flores.

Swann and her husband have tested positive for COVID-19, but she recently tweeted that they have not experienced symptoms. Whoever wins Tuesday’s runoff will be in a strong position to come to Congress from a district that hasn’t elected a Democrat since Chet Edwards won a final term in 2008.

In Texas’ 13th District, former White House physician Ronny Jackson is in a runoff for the deep-red open seat in the Texas Panhandle. Jackson was nominated for Veterans Affairs secretary in 2018, but withdrew from consideration amid allegations that he abused alcohol and mishandled prescription drugs, which he denied.

Trump has endorsed Jackson in the runoff against lobbyist Josh Winegarner, who has the backing of retiring GOP Rep. Mac Thornberry. Nearly $1.6 million in outside spending has flooded into the race since the March primary, with most of it benefitting Jackson. He has gotten support from Club for Growth Action, House Freedom Fund and a new super PAC called Miles of Greatness Fund. 

4. Welcome to the Club

The Club for Growth’s political arm is spending in a handful of other primaries Tuesday.

In Maine’s 2nd District, outside groups have invested in the GOP primary where the club recently dropped $25,000 against Adrienne Bennett, a former broadcast journalist who served as press secretary to former Gov. Paul R. LePage. 

The club has endorsed former state Sen. Eric Brakey, who was the GOP nominee for Senate in 2018. Another conservative group, FreedomWorks, has also spent in support of Brakey, while former state Rep. Dale Crafts has touted an endorsement from LePage. Whoever wins the nomination may need more outside help in the general election against freshman Democrat Jared Golden, who reported more than $2 million in the bank as of June 24. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Tilt Democratic

Club for Grown Action also spent heavily in two GOP runoffs in deep-red Alabama seats. In the 1st District, which GOP Rep. Bradley Byrne vacated for an unsuccessful Senate bid, the club has spent more than $1.2 million, mainly against Mobile County Commissioner Jerry Carl. Byrne and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have endorsed Carl, but the club is backing former state Sen. Bill Hightower. 

In Alabama’s 2nd District, all of the $795,000 in outside spending has benefitted former state Rep. Barry Moore. The club and the tea party-linked House Freedom Action have spent a combined $482,000 against businessman Jeff Coleman, who has the backing of retiring GOP Rep. Martha Roby and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

5. Democratic groups take sides

Outside groups have engaged in two Democratic primary runoffs in Texas, with most of the spending focused on Texas’ 24th District, an open seat in the Dallas suburbs that’s a top Democratic target

Air Force veteran Kim Olson is facing former local school board member Candace Valenzuela in the Democratic runoff. Former Irving Mayor Beth Van Duyne won the GOP primary outright back in March. 

Since the primary, outside groups have spent $952,000. Most of the spending has been from groups supporting Valenzuela, including BOLD PAC, the political arm of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus; Latino Victory Fund; Voter Protection Project; and End Citizens United. VoteVets has spent $108,000 to bolster Olson.

The Democratic runoff to take on GOP Rep. Michael McCaul in Texas’ 10th District, which stretches from Austin to the Houston suburbs, has also seen outside spending. The biggest spender has been 314 Action, which backs candidates with scientific backgrounds. 

The group is supporting physician Pritesh Gandhi, who faces lawyer and 2018 nominee Mike Siegel, whose platform is further to the left. Siegel, who lost to McCaul by 4 points two years ago, has been endorsed by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. 

6. Texas targets take shape 

Tuesday’s runoffs will set the matchups in three more House races that Democrats are targeting. 

Democrats’ best opportunity is in the 23rd District along the Mexican border where GOP Rep. Will Hurd is retiring. Retired Air Force intelligence officer Gina Ortiz Jones, who nearly defeated Hurd in 2018, won the March primary, but the GOP contest went to a runoff.

Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz’s leadership PAC has spent on behalf of Air Force veteran Raul Reyes, who originally launched a primary challenge against Hurd. Future Leaders Fund, which Hurd launched to support diverse GOP candidates, is backing Navy veteran Tony Gonzales, who also boasts endorsements from Hurd, Trump and other GOP leaders.

In the 22nd District in the Houston suburbs, Democrat Sri Preston Kulkarni won the March 3 primary, but Republicans Troy Nehls and Kathaleen Wall went to a runoff. 

Wall, a GOP activist and megadonor, has spent nearly $7.5 million of her own money on the primary. Despite being outspent 20-to-1 in the pre-runoff reporting period, Nehls could still win due to a base of supporters in Fort Bend County, where he has served as sheriff.

Democrats are also targeting GOP Rep. John Carter in the 31st District. Hegar, the Senate candidate, came close to unseating Carter in 2018. But without a blockbuster fundraiser like Hegar, the district is more of a reach for Democrats this cycle. 

Physician Christine Mann and computer engineer Donna Imam are competing for the Democratic nod. Mann’s campaign recently received a loan through the Paycheck Protection Program, which it has since repaid. The campaign applied for the loan because Mann has not been focused as much on fundraising while testing patients for COVID-19