The Slatest

Midwestern Democrats Get Some Help at the Top of the Ticket

Kris Kobach speaks to supporters on primary night.
Kris Kobach has the GOP fretting about his general-election appeal.
Steve Pope/Getty Images

Tuesday’s batch of primaries was heavy on historic firsts but light on suspense. The night’s biggest surprise occurred in a state that held its primary last week: Kansas, where interim Gov. Jeff Colyer unexpectedly conceded the GOP nomination to Trump-backed Kris Kobach, despite being down just a few hundred votes with a few thousand provisional ballots yet to be counted.

Given Kobach’s extreme anti-immigration views, irrational beliefs about voter fraud, and general love of bombast, establishment Republicans have long feared he would prove toxic in a general election. Nonpartisan handicappers agree. Before Colyer conceded, the Cook Political Report saw the governor’s race as “likely” Republican; immediately after, Cook deemed it a toss-up.

Two other competitive governor contests in the Midwest gave Democrats some similar reasons for optimism on Tuesday—good news that could potentially spill over to as many as 10 key congressional races.

In Minnesota, Rep. Tim Walz won Tuesday’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, while former two-term governor and one-time presidential hopeful Tim Pawlenty flamed out in the GOP contest, despite raising nearly four times as much as his opponent, former county commissioner and 2014 nominee Jeff Johnson. Walz’s victory was a relief for Democrats fretting that state Attorney General Lori Swanson would have entered the general with too much baggage. Johnson, meanwhile, lost his latest run for governor by 6 points and his embrace of Trump this time around stands out, given Minnesota is the only swing state in the Midwest the president lost two years ago.

Limited polling suggests Walz, a six-term congressman from a rural district, was going to be the early favorite against either Pawlenty or Johnson. But T-Paw would have had the advantage of being able to call up his friends in finance—he was the industry’s top lobbyist after his failed presidential run—to help bankroll his campaign. Instead, Johnson enters the general election with less than a third of the cash Walz has on hand, and with the finance sector thinking twice about cutting him checks after he spent so much of the primary hitting Pawlenty for his time at the Financial Services Roundtable.

In Wisconsin, teacher-turned-state superintendent Tony Evers emerged from a crowded Democratic field on Tuesday to earn the right to take on Gov. Scott Walker, who has been a white whale for the left since he began decimating organized labor after taking office in 2011. Like Walz, but in contrast to many other Democratic nominees this year, Evers fits the mold of boring old white dude—though the safe play might be the best one in a race Democrats are eager to make all about Walker. Evers has also clashed with Walker over education before, giving him some needed experience heading into one of the highest-profile governor’s races in the country.

Winning control of the governor’s mansion this year would give Democrats a leg up heading into the next redistricting process, and having quality nominees at the top of the ticket could have more immediate consequences further down the ballot.

In Minnesota, Democrats are defending two Senate seats—Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s, which is safe, and interim Sen. Tina Smith’s, which is not—as well as two open House seats that are among just three that Republicans have a credible chance of flipping this fall. Meanwhile, they’re targeting two GOP incumbents who seem vulnerable.

In Wisconsin, Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin is playing defense, while union steelworker Randy Bryce is playing offense in Paul Ryan’s congressional district and Dan Kohl is doing the same against Rep. Glenn Grothman.

Kansas is less of a battleground, but two GOP congressional seats there are thought to be in play this fall. Given how tight many of those races could be, a gubernatorial dud could prove to be a decisive drag on down-ballot turnout.

Democrats are wary of getting too excited, even in Kansas, where another politically incorrect candidate won the presidential contest by 20 points two years ago. For now, though, Democrats leave a low-key primary night with things still trending their way. Whether that will continue through Election Day remains to be seen.