In the summer of 2018, my colleague Jim Newell launched the Hot Seats, a weekly rundown of the seven buzziest, most urgent, and most ridiculous/embarrassing local races in the news every week. Then Election Day came, the seats got filled, and they weren’t so hot anymore.
Well … we’re back! While Jim has moved on to fancy presidential things, Hot Seats has returned to track all the nonpresidential races you really should start paying attention to. Big stuff is about to go down on Super Tuesday, with potentially zeitgeist-defining primaries taking place in Alabama and Texas, and we’ve also included some of the other matchups you’ll be hearing more and more about as election season continues to build momentum.
To the seats, then, and their respective hotnesses!
1. Alabama Senate, Republican PrimaryJeff Sessions vs. MAGA.
If you’ll recall, Doug Jones won a surprise Senate special election for Democrats when Jeff Sessions left the chamber to become Trump’s attorney general and Republican voters selected accused sexual predator Roy Moore to run against Jones. Now Sessions is trying to get his seat back. But in one of those switcherooskis that makes politics so “fun,” he’s being cast by opponents as the anti-Trump candidate, despite having been Trump’s first Senate endorser, because he purportedly didn’t do enough to defend the president during the Russia investigation. (Sessions argues that he still loves his MAGA daddy more than anyone.) His most formidable rival appears to be Tommy Tuberville (great name), a college football coach who once did a decent job coaching Auburn’s team and is campaigning on, among other things, the premise that there are no-go sharia zones in major American cities where “terrorism has taken over.” (Scary!) If no candidate gets a majority on Tuesday, there’ll be a runoff on March 31. Whoever wins will be a favorite to reflip the seat against Jones in November.
2. Texas’ 28th DistrictGet this: a Democratic primary featuring a centrist vs. a progressive.
Rep. Henry Cuellar, 64, is the Democratic incumbent in the 28th District, which stretches down from San Antonio to encompass a big stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border. He describes himself as “pro-business” and has cast votes against abortion rights and gun control bills. His opponent, Jessica Cisneros, is 26 years old and has been endorsed not just by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren but also by more conventionally mainstream Democratic groups like EMILY’s List and the Texas AFL-CIO. Cuellar argues that his district’s voters appreciate his moderate-to-conservative viewpoint, and Cisneros says they are ready for someone more progressive. With no public polling having been conducted in the district, there’s no way to tell who’s right until Tuesday, but it sure sounds like a familiar dynamic!
3. Texas’ 22nd DistrictPierce Bush (yes, one of those Bushes) vs. the rabble.
The Lone Star state’s 22nd District covers suburban territory south and west of Houston that’s become increasingly diverse and liberal as the prosperous local economy has attracted families from outside the state and country. Whoever wins the Republican primary will likely be running against Democrat Sri Kulkarni to replace retiring GOP Rep. Pete Olson, who defeated Kulkarni by a surprisingly narrow five-point margin in 2018 after having never won a previous race by any less than 19 points. The 33-year-old Bush, Jeb and George W.’s nephew, is running as a Republican who supports Trump but isn’t a nationalist culture warrior; one of his “flaws” as a primary candidate is that there’s video of him protesting against the Muslim travel ban in early 2017. His top opponents are Kathaleen Wall, a major party donor whose first campaign ad uses the word God or one of its variants five times in 30 seconds, and Troy Nehls, a local sheriff who once wrote on Facebook that he would be within his rights to arrest a driver with a “Fuck Trump” sticker on his truck for disorderly conduct. So, yeah, this is one of those referendums on the future of the Republican Party.
4. Massachusetts’ 1st DistrictMoney in politics in action.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal is a 71-year-old who raises lots of money from corporate PACs and is known nationally for his inexplicable—and, to many, infuriating—reluctance to pursue the release of Donald Trump’s tax returns. His Democratic primary challenger, Alex Morse, is a progressive 31-year-old mayor from Holyoke, one of the post-industrial cities and towns in the 1st District that sit alongside rural (and often more affluent) communities in and around the Berkshires. Neal has raised a lot more money than Morse, and Hot Seats’ expert opinion is that this makes him likely to win this race in September—Massachusetts' presidential primary is Tuesday, but its primaries for other positions aren't until Sept. 1—despite being, objectively speaking, a bit of a do-nothing lame-o.
5. Massachusetts Senate, Democratic PrimaryA young Kennedy makes the case for vigah.
Like Neal, Sen. Ed Markey is a 70-something incumbent. But unlike Neal (and Henry Cuellar), he’s a career-long liberal who’s been endorsed by Ocasio-Cortez. Rather than attacking from the left, the 39-year-old Joe Kennedy III is arguing instead that he would simply be more energetic and active in Washington than Markey is. Polls suggest that this argument is working—click here and then search the page for the word fight—and the race is currently a dead heat. (Also, since we were all curious: Kennedy is RFK’s grandson.)
6. South Carolina SenateThis is the one featuring Lindsey Graham.
Forty-four-year-old Democrat Jaime Harrison is following in Beto O’Rourke and Stacey Abrams’ footsteps: He’s an up-and-comer who’s raising a lot of money from across the country for a high-profile campaign in a state where Democrats usually plod to 15-point losses. (The Democratic National Committee associate chairman has been endorsed by basically every Dem politician in the world plus Mark Hamill, and doesn’t face any prominent competitors in the Democratic primary, which will be held June 9.) Harrison argues that incumbent Republican Lindsey Graham’s embrace of full Trump toadyship has alienated conservative-leaning but independent voters, who Harrison hopes will be taken with his inspiring, locally rooted personal story and policy focus on Medicaid expansion–slash–rural health care access. It’s still a long shot, but by showing himself to be a capable, well-connected communicator and fundraiser Harrison has already gotten further than many predecessors in similar races.
7. West Virginia Governor, Democratic PrimaryThis is the one featuring … Ross Douthat.
Your Hot Seats correspondent is including this race not because it’s imminent—the vote is on May 12; the winner will face ex-Democrat incumbent Jim Justice in the general election—but because we recently realized that we went to college with populist progressive candidate Stephen Smith, who has led at least one poll of a large field and broke the record for small-dollar donations in a West Virginia governor’s race before the calendar even turned to 2020. (Smith’s group, West Virginia Can’t Wait, says it has also recruited more than 90 candidates to run for other offices in the state.) In fact, your correspondent recalls having been at a campus dinner event attended by both Smith and a conservative writer named Ross Douthat, who would go on to get a column in the New York Times, at which Douthat rolled his eyes at Smith for quoting John Lennon’s “Imagine.” Reached for comment (really), Douthat said he remembered the dinner but not that moment in particular. “I think Stephen is a standup guy,” Douthat told us, “but if he did quote ‘Imagine’ then he deserved every eye-roll I could give him.” (Says Smith—really—in response: “Ross probably also rolled his eyes the first time he heard that students and janitors had set out to win a living wage on campus. We won.” About the winning, at least, he is correct.)
Due to a production error, this article was originally erroneously published and briefly live on Sunday morning.