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Primary elections and runoffs in Texas, Alabama and Maine: 9 things to watch in Tuesday's down-ballot races

Posted July 14, 2020 6:16 a.m. EDT

— Three states host down-ballot contests on Tuesday. Texas and Alabama are holding runoffs for House and Senate primaries that weren't settled in March, and Maine holds its primaries, but with the added twist of ranked-choice voting, which could delay results.

The most high-profile primary race is in Alabama, where former Attorney General Jeff Sessions is trying to reclaim his old Senate seat, but Tuesday's contests in Texas and Maine could go further in shaping the balance of power in Congress next year.

National Democrats have made Texas "ground zero" for their 2020 efforts to fortify and try to expand their House majority. Several of those competitive November matchups are already set, but Tuesday will determine the final pairings for a handful of races. Democrats are also eyeing the Senate race and will pick their nominee to take on GOP Sen. John Cornyn. And in Maine, which holds one of this year's most closely watched Senate races, Democrats will settle on a nominee to take on GOP Sen. Susan Collins, while Republicans will pick a candidate to take on a vulnerable House Democrat.

Here's what to watch on Tuesday:

Is Jeff Sessions' political career over?

Sessions, who left the Senate to serve in President Donald Trump's administration, is trying to reclaim his old seat, after falling from Trump's good graces. He's never lost a race, but now he's in the fight for his political life, up against former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville in Tuesday's runoff. The winner will take on Democratic Sen. Doug Jones, who defeated Republican Roy Moore in a 2017 special election, and is widely considered the most vulnerable senator in 2020 given that he's running for reelection in a deeply red state. (Moore's fourth-place finish in the March primary was a relief to national Republicans, who wanted to avoid jeopardizing the seat again.) Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales, who is a CNN contributor, rates the general election "Leans Republican."

Sessions was the first senator to endorse then-candidate Trump in 2016, but after recusing himself from the FBI probe into Russia interference in the 2016 election, Sessions became a target of the President, who has continued to lash out at him in the lead up to the runoff. The Club for Growth, another former ally, has also turned on Sessions and is backing Tuberville. On Saturday, Trump urged Alabama voters to cast their ballots for Tuberville, calling his former attorney general in a tweet a "disaster who will let us all down." Sessions fired back that his "honor and integrity are far more important than these juvenile insults" and claimed that Tuberville is "too cowardly" to debate him.

"As you know, Alabama does not take orders from Washington," Sessions tweeted.

Will national Democrats' Senate picks continue their winning streak?

Despite some last-minute traction for their progressive challengers, national Democrats' Senate picks have had a good track record in primaries so far this year: Amy McGrath in Kentucky, John Hickenlooper in Colorado and Theresa Greenfield in Iowa won their nominations in June, and Cal Cunningham in North Carolina prevailed in March. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has backed Air Force veteran MJ Hegar in Texas and state House Speaker Sara Gideon in Maine. EMILY's List is also supporting both women.

In Texas, Hegar -- who narrowly lost a House race in 2018 -- and her allies are massively outspending state Sen. Royce West, who has attacked her for voting in the 2016 GOP presidential primary for Carly Fiorina (which Hegar has called a protest vote against Trump). In recent days, Sen. John Cornyn's campaign has waded into the Democratic primary, running an ad that attacks West as too liberal (potentially helping him with primary voters). Republicans tried similar tactics in North Carolina earlier this year, running ads they thought would boost Cunningham's opponent, who had less money and national support (it didn't work). Cornyn will face the winner of Tuesday's runoff in November. Inside Elections rates the Senate race "Leans Republican."

Maine's Democratic Senate primary features three people. Voters have the chance to rank all candidates by preference in the state's ranked-choice voting system, which was used at the federal level in Maine for the first time in 2018. If no candidate receives a majority of the vote, the last-place finisher is tossed out and votes are then tabulated until two candidates remain and one has the majority.

Gideon has the most money and highest profile, while activist Betsy Sweet, who finished third in the 2018 Democratic gubernatorial primary, and lawyer Bre Kidman are trying to run to her left. The nominee will inherit nearly $4 million in crowdfunded donations intended for Collins' challenger. The Crowdpac fund was started during the fight over Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation. Collins is facing the toughest reelection of her career in a race Inside Elections rates a "Toss-up."

Will Trump's former doctor be coming to Congress?

Dr. Ronny Jackson, the former White House physician and Trump's one-time nominee to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, is locked in a GOP runoff for an open seat in a district Trump carried by more than 60 points. It's the kind of district where fealty to Trump is usually the most salient factor in a GOP primary, and Jackson has recently endorsed the right-wing "Obamagate" conspiracy promoted by Trump. Jackson finished second in the 15-person GOP field in March, far behind cattle industry lobbyist Josh Winegarner, who has the support of outgoing 13th District Rep. Mac Thornberry. Trump backed Jackson ahead of the March primary.

Could the pandemic give a boost to doctor candidates?

Jackson isn't the only doctor running in Texas on Tuesday. Pritesh Gandhi, an Austin physician who posts frequent videos of himself in personal protective equipment, is one of two Democrats vying for the right to take on GOP Rep. Michael McCaul in the 10th District. He's facing 2018 nominee Mike Siegel, who came relatively close to unseating McCaul two years ago and finished first in the March primary this year.

While Siegel has name recognition from having run before, Gandhi's profile has likely been raised by the pandemic. He's appeared on CNN several times to talk about the virus and has made his medical experience a focus of his paid media. 314 Action, which supports candidates with science backgrounds, is backing Gandhi with an ad that says, "He's fighting on the frontlines" with images of him in PPE.

Siegel, who backs "Medicare for All," has the endorsement of Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, while Sen. Kamala Harris of California is supporting Gandhi. Inside Elections rates the general election "Likely Republican."

Will Pete Sessions be coming back to Congress?

Texas Republican Pete Sessions lost in 2018 when Democrat Colin Allred unseated him in the 32nd District. But now the 11-term former congressman, who was allegedly caught up in efforts to oust the former US ambassador to Ukraine, is trying to come back to Congress -- just in a different (and much more Republican) seat. Sessions had originally considered running against Allred but when GOP Rep. Bill Flores announced he wasn't running for reelection, the solidly red 17th District came open, and Sessions jumped in. In Tuesday's runoff, he's facing businesswoman Renee Swan, who announced earlier this month around the start of early voting that she and her husband had tested positive for coronavirus and would be quarantining. The general election is a "Solid Republican" race.

Can money buy (electoral) love?

One of those competitive Texas seats Democrats are targeting is the 22nd District, currently represented by GOP Rep. Pete Olson, who's retiring. Fort Bend County Sheriff Troy Nehls, who finished first in the 15-person GOP primary, is up against Kathaleen Wall, who lost a primary bid for a different district in 2018. Wall has put about $8.3 million of her own money into her 2020 campaign, which is a new record for a self-funding House candidate in the state, according to the Houston Chronicle. The winner will take on Democrat Sri Preston Kulkarni in November in a race currently rated "Tilts Republican."

How will Texas affect Trump's win record?

Trump-backed candidates in North Carolina and Colorado lost primaries in June. But that didn't stop the President from weighing in on another Texas GOP primary earlier this month -- on the opposite side of Sen. Ted Cruz, who'd stepped in days earlier. Trump backed Tony Gonzales, as have several House GOP leaders and outgoing Rep. Will Hurd, who hasn't always been a staunch Trump ally in the House. Cruz backed Raul Reyes, saying in an ad from his leadership PAC, "President Trump needs more congressmen like Col. Reyes." The two Republicans are competing on Tuesday to take on Democrat Gina Ortiz Jones, who narrowly lost to Hurd in 2018. Inside Elections rates the race "Leans Democratic."

Could the first Afro Latina be headed to Congress?

Two Democratic women -- Kim Olson and Candace Valenzuela -- are vying for the nomination in Texas' open 24th District (GOP Rep. Kenny Marchant is not running for reelection.) If she won the nomination and were elected to Congress, Valenzuela would be the first Afro Latina in Congress. She has the backing of EMILY's List, End Citizens United and the political arms of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Congressional Black Caucus and Congressional Asian American Pacific American Caucus. VoteVets is supporting Olson, a retired Air Force colonel who lost a bid for state agriculture commissioner in 2018, but finished first in the congressional primary earlier this year. The winner will take on Republican Beth Van Duyne in November, who's one of the few Republican women so far who's won a primary in a seat that's currently rated in the GOP's favor.

Only one House Dem split his impeachment vote. Who will he face in November?

Maine Rep. Jared Golden, a freshman Democrat and Marine veteran, hasn't hesitated to buck his party in Washington -- including on impeachment. He was the only member of the House to split his vote on the two articles, voting to convict the President of abuse of power but not obstruction of Congress.

Golden's victory in 2018 -- in the nation's first use of ranked-choice voting for a House race -- wiped out the last New England Republican in the House. But now Republicans want to get this seat back, and three Republicans are competing on Tuesday to take on Golden in Maine's rural 2nd District, which the President carried by more than 10 points in 2016. Former state Sen. Eric Brakey, who challenged Sen. Angus King in 2018, has the most money in the GOP field. The Club for Growth has backed him over former state Rep. Dale Crafts and Adrienne Bennett, who was the spokeswoman for former Gov. Paul LePage.

Whichever Republican emerges from Tuesday's primary will start at a financial disadvantage compared to Golden -- who had more than $2 million in the bank by the end of the pre-primary reporting period -- but because of the competitiveness of the district, the GOP nominee is likely to benefit from significant outside spending. Inside Elections rates the race "Tilts Democratic."

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