After months of fundraising, stump speeches, debates, and advertisements from candidates, voters in 11 states will take their turn in May, casting ballots in a series of key primary elections that will give more defined shape to the 2014 landscape.
Much of the action coming up this month is on the Republican side of the aisle, as the different wings of the party continue their fight for control. But Democrats will be paying close attention to more than a few nominating contests for House and governor in the select races. Here are the key Senate, House, and gubernatorial primaries to watch this month.
Can Republican state House Speaker Thom Tillis avoid a costly primary runoff before an expected matchup with Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan? That's the main question heading into Tuesday. The establishment-backed state legislator will need to clear 40 percent to become the party's Senate nominee and direct his full attention to Hagan. Physician Greg Brannon, who received a last-minute endorsement from Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, and pastor Mark Harris are both hoping to push Tillis into a July 15 runoff, but the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and American Crossroads have spent heavily to prevent that.
With the hard-fought Senate race demanding attention, several consequential House primaries have gone relatively unnoticed. Former state Sens. David Rouzer and Woody White are facing off in the 7th Congressional District race, one of the Republicans' best opportunities to pick up an open House seat. In just the past week, three establishment-oriented outside groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have gotten involved in the race on behalf of Rouzer, who narrowly lost to retiring Democratic Rep. Mike McIntyre in 2012 and has support from Eric Cantor and other establishment leaders, which White's campaign has attacked. The last-minute ad blitz may end up providing the boost he needs.
The 3rd Congressional District is also playing host to a competitive primary, where antiwar, libertarian Rep. Walter Jones is trying to fend off a challenge from Taylor Griffin, a more hawkish former aide to President George W. Bush. Jones has outraised Griffin, but Ending Spending Action Fund, a GOP super PAC, has run ads attacking the challenger.
A handful of Republicans are also vying for the party's nomination in the 6th Congressional District, a safe seat left open after Rep. Howard Coble's retirement. An internal poll from Rockingham County District Attorney Phil Berger Jr.'s campaign in April showed him with a double-digit lead, but still short of the 40 percent needed to avoid a runoff.
Freshman Republican Rep. David Joyce is facing a primary challenge in the 14th Congressional District in his first primary campaign—he was appointed to the general-election ballot in 2012 after Rep. Steven LaTourette decided to retire after winning renomination. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Hospital Association PAC have run TV ads in northeast Ohio boosting Joyce in his race against GOP state Rep. Matt Lynch.
Nebraska has played host to two highly contested statewide GOP primary battles for open seats this campaign season. On the Senate side, Republicans Ben Sasse and Shane Osborne appear to be the top two contenders and have aimed their fire at one another in recent weeks. Sasse has also benefited from the aid of national tea-party figures and well-heeled groups like the Club for Growth and Senate Conservatives Fund.
The governor's race has developed into a two-man contest between Jon Bruning, Nebraska's attorney general, and businessman Pete Ricketts, who leads in fundraising and has support from the likes of Sen. Ted Cruz, Gov. Scott Walker, and Sarah Palin. A number of outside groups, including American Future Fund, have gone on air attacking Bruning, who was favored in 2012 to take the state's open Senate seat but lost the Republican primary after another onslaught of outside attack ads.
Also keep an eye on Rep. Lee Terry, a Republican, in the 2nd Congressional District. Terry has shown some vulnerability in recent primaries, capturing less than 65 percent of the vote in 2010 and 2012. Challenger Dan Frei, who has lagged well behind in fundraising, is hoping to make even more of a dent in Terry's support this year.
With the Senate contest between Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito and Democratic Secretary of State Natalie Tennant basically set, the contest of consequence here is in the 2nd Congressional District, currently in Capito's hands. Alex Mooney, the former chairman of the Maryland GOP, seems to have the advantage in the GOP primary race: He's the only candidate on the central West Virginia airwaves so far and is backed by tea-party-aligned groups like Senate Conservatives Fund and the Madison Project.
Everyone knows the GOP primary for the state's open Senate seat is destined for a runoff, but nobody knows which two candidates will end up going head-to-head. Self-funding businessman David Perdue and Rep. Jack Kingston have topped many polls, but the field is bunched far below the 50 percent mark, and there has been recent movement by former Secretary of State Karen Handel. Reps. Phil Gingrey and Paul Broun are in the mix, too, from the more firebrand wing of the party. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce endorsed Kingston and is working to boost him into the runoff, while Ending Spending Action Fund has run attack ads against Gingrey, seeking to prevent him from advancing. A likely July 22 runoff means Democrat Michelle Nunn can continue to remain largely above the for the next two months and continue stockpile cash in preparation for her eventual Republican opponent.
The Senate race has left Georgia's safely Republican 1st, 10th, and 11th Congressional Districts open, and all three crowded GOP races, each of which pits more traditional Republicans with ties to business against more populist, tea-party-style contenders, will likely be decided by runoffs. In the 4th Congressional District, former DeKalb County Sheriff Tom Brown has more money in his campaign account than Rep. Hank Johnson, one of the few incumbents on either side facing primary trouble this year.
In the 12th Congressional District, four Republicans are vying to take on armor-plated Rep. John Barrow, the last white congressional Democrat from the Deep South. Two have run for the district before, while state Rep. Delvis Dutton is the only one currently serving in elected office.
Tea-party dreams of knocking off the highest-profile Senate incumbent, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, will likely be shattered later this month. Despite raising decent money and garnering anti-McConnell support from some tea party groups, challenger Matt Bevin has not panned out. Most recently, his appearance at a pro-cockfighting rally has stirred controversy. The November fight between McConnell and Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes awaits.
This state might hold Democrats' best opportunity to take over a governor's mansion in 2014, and plenty of candidates signed up to try out. Businessman Tom Wolf has risen to the top of the pack, thanks to an early barrage of self-funded TV ads, with recent polls giving him with a commanding advantage. But GOP Gov. Tom Corbett and Democratic challengers like Rep. Allyson Schwartz and state Treasurer Rob McCord have begun attacking his business record and financial arrangements, trying to erode his standing before May 20.
In the 8th Congressional District, Democrats are eager to take on Republican Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick this fall, but they're split on who should run against him. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee gave early support to Kevin Strouse, an Army veteran, while EMILY's List has been boosting businesswoman Shaughnessy Naughton.
Schwartz's bid for the governorship drew four Democrats into the race for her 13th Congressional District. Former Rep. Marjorie Margolies is vying for her old job after a nearly 20-year hiatus from the House. She's facing three opponents in the primary: state Sen. Daylin Leach, physician Val Arkoosh, and state Rep. Brendan Boyle, all of whom have gone up on TV. There isn't a clear front-runner in the contest, but whoever comes out on top will likely coast to Congress in the reliably Democratic district.
Idaho is hosting one of the cycle's most dangerous anti-incumbent primaries in the House, pitting big-name outside groups against each other in the 2nd Congressional District. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has gone all in Rep. Mike Simpson, while the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks, the Madison Project, and other conservative groups have thrown their support—and money—behind lawyer Bryan Smith. There was already $2.4 million in outside spending here by the end of April, most of it supporting Simpson.
As the map has turned toward Republicans in the last half year, some Senate races in Democratic-leaning states are getting a second look from the GOP. Pediatric neurosurgeon Monica Wehby has emerged as a favorite of her party's establishment, handily outraising her main opponent, state Rep. Jason Conger, and airing a powerful biographical ad about her job. If Wehby advances, Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley could have a race on his hands in the fall.
The fate of the country's oldest congressman will be determined at the end of the month in the state's 4th Congressional District. Unable to garner the 50 percent necessary to bypass a runoff in the March 4 primary, 91-year-old Rep. Ralph Hall will go head-to-head with former U.S. Attorney John Ratcliffe to close out a packed election month. Since the primary, conservative outside groups have provided Ratcliffe with a boost: The Now or Never PAC has aired TV ads attacking Hall and the Club for Growth also threw its support behind the challenger.
This article appears in the May 5, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.