Primary voters head to the polls in Texas, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Georgia on Tuesday, to decide the latest battles in the ongoing war between the Democratic establishment and the progressive wing of the party. The battle lines in Tuesday’s races are drawn less around policy than politics—specifically, how Democrats can best capitalize on the current political climate to win in conservative-leaning areas this November.
Here’s one race to watch in each state, and what it might mean for Democrats in November.
Texas’ 7th Congressional District
After months of mud-slinging, a run-off in this Houston-area district will settle the first full-on intra-party fight of the year between House Democrats and Bernie Sanders-minded progressives.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee made this one a national race-to-watch, when it dumped its oppo-research file on Laura Moser, a progressive journalist-turned-activist, ahead of the March primary. (Moser has written for Slate and other national publications.)
While the DCCC said its aggressive intervention had nothing to do with ideology—its research centered on a joke she once made while living in Washington about not wanting to move to rural Texas—the attack quickly turned Moser into a cause célèbre on the left. Moser got a surge in donations, and advanced to the run-off against Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, a local attorney. After the primary, the DCCC took a not-so-subtle step back from the race and, perhaps not unrelatedly, national progressives largely shifted their attention elsewhere.
Still, the runoff neatly illustrates the competing views inside the Democratic Party about how best to win in red districts this November. The winner will take on GOP Rep. John Culberson in a district that has been represented by Republicans for the past half-century, but which went for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
The two candidates are so close on the actual policies that a moderator at a recent forum had to ask where they disagree. But the stylistic difference is a big one—national Democrats are hoping Fletcher’s more moderate pitch can appeal to Republican voters who have been turned off by Donald Trump and the national GOP, while progressives believe the key to victory this fall is candidates like Moser who can excite the liberal base with calls for things like Medicare For All and Trump’s impeachment.
Arkansas’ 2nd Congressional District
It’s a similar story in this central Arkansas district, where House Democrats believe state Rep. Clarke Tucker is their best bet to take down GOP Rep. French Hill in a district that went for Trump by 10 points two years ago but was represented by a Democrat as recently as 2010. The DCCC reportedly recruited Tucker to the race, and it later added him to its high-profile Red to Blue program, angering a few lesser-known rivals running to his left.
Tucker’s center-left strategy has echoes of the one Conor Lamb used to win a high-profile special election in western Pennsylvania earlier this year. Tucker avoids saying Trump’s name and says he’s no fan of Nancy Pelosi. He talks about being a cancer survivor and says he knows how important it is to protect Obamacare—but he stops just shy of calling for Medicare For All, instead arguing the best way to expand coverage is via a Medicare buy-in.
That moderate posture has drawn complaints from his progressive rivals who say past attempts to win the district by running toward the middle failed. Tucker is up big in limited public polling and the fundraising department, but a candidate needs a majority of the primary vote in Arkansas to win the nomination. With four candidates in the race, Tucker could find himself in a head-to-head runoff, most likely against Paul Spencer, a teacher and activist who supports a number of Bernie Sanders-favored economic proposals, but who has drawn his own criticism from the left for his Lamb-like personal opposition to abortion.
Georgia’s gubernatorial race
There isn’t a whole lot of policy daylight between the two Democrats in this race even by primary standards—both want to expand Medicaid and gun restrictions, for example, and both oppose new limits on abortion. But when it comes to political strategy, they are worlds apart. Stacey Evans, a former state representative who is white, is appealing to her electability, saying she wants to win over independents and moderates—particularly suburban women. Stacey Abrams, a former state House minority leader who is seeking to become the nation’s first black female governor, is betting she can fire up liberals and progressives, including the hundreds of thousands of African American voters who sat out the last election.
Muddling the Civil War narrative a bit, however, is that national Democrats have mostly lined up behind Abrams in this one, including Sens. Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker, and Kamala Harris, as well as Hillary Clinton. So too have three of George’s four members of the U.S. House, and national liberal groups like MoveOn, Democracy for America, and the Working Families Party.
The available polling suggests Abrams is the favorite in the primary, but regardless of who wins the Democratic nomination, they’ll enter the general election as a heavy underdog. Meanwhile, five Republicans are running to replace term-limited GOP Gov. Nathan Deal. That race, like most GOP primaries this year, has turned into a battle to see who can out-Trump everyone else. One candidate is touring the state in a “deportation bus” that he promises to fill with illegals. May the best candidate win.
Kentucky’s 6th Congressional District
Things are muddled in central Kentucky too, where Amy McGrath, a former Marine fighter pilot, made an early splash with a viral campaign ad about how, as a teen, she began a letter-writing campaign lobbying Congress to allow women to serve in combat. That ad wasn’t enough to keep national Democrats from recruiting Lexington Mayor Jim Gray into the race, which now features a half-dozen Democrats competing for the chance to take down GOP Rep. Andy Barr this fall.
But the DCCC has yet to add Gray to its Red to Blue program and there are signs Washington Democrats have come around to the idea of McGrath, who has run a strong campaign and could be palatable in a general election. To make things even more confusing, it was Gray—not McGrath—who said he wouldn’t vote for Nancy Pelosi to be House speaker. Meanwhile, it’s state Sen. Reggie Thomas who is arguably running as the most progressive candidate in the race, though he’s had much less success raising money.
All three would bring some additional diversity to the House: McGrath is part of a bumper crop of first-time female candidates; Gray was one of the first openly gay politicians elected in Kentucky; and Thomas is running for a seat in the lower chamber where currently less than 1 in 9 lawmakers are black.
The winner will take on Barr in a district that reelected him to a third term in 2016 by 22 points, and went for Trump by 15 points that same year, meaning whoever wins the primary will still have some work to do.
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