By Eric Bradner, Dan Merica and Gregory Krieg, CNN
Primaries on Tuesday will test how far Republican voters are willing to go in embracing conservative candidates who could struggle to win in November’s general election.
Five states are holding primaries Tuesday — Idaho, Kentucky, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Oregon — marking the most jam-packed date on the 2022 midterm calendar yet. Each state features compelling contests: North Carolina Rep. Madison Cawthorn is attempting to survive a series of scandals; a Republican governor faces his own lieutenant governor in Idaho; and outside money has poured into Oregon House races.
But the marquee races are in Pennsylvania, one of the nation’s largest swing states. The GOP primary to replace retiring Sen. Pat Toomey had shaped up to be a head-to-head battle between celebrity surgeon Dr. Mehmet Oz, who was endorsed by former President Donald Trump, and former hedge fund chief David McCormick. But Kathy Barnette, a little-known conservative candidate, has surged late in the race, worrying Republican strategists and even prompting Trump to say that she “will never be able to win” in November.
In the governor’s race, Trump has endorsed the far-right contender, state Sen. Doug Mastriano, who has embraced election fraud lies and is seeking an office that would allow him sway over the state’s electors in the 2024 presidential contest.
Democrats in Pennsylvania face turmoil, as well: the party’s leading Senate candidate, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, revealed Sunday that he had suffered a stroke just days before the primary.
Here are seven things to watch in Tuesday’s primaries:
Can Barnette deliver a stunner in Senate primary?
The key question going into Tuesday is whether Barnette, the upstart candidate vying to become the first Black Republican woman elected to the Senate, can shock the political establishment by winning the commonwealth’s primary.
Barnette was largely an also-ran for much of the campaign, with Oz and McCormick widely seen as the top two candidates. But Barnette, spurred by grassroots Republican energy and a deep-seated antipathy for Trump’s decision to back Oz, has jumped into contention, making Tuesday’s primary a wide-open contest.
Barnette’s ascension has caused Republicans in Pennsylvania and Washington to worry about her chances in a general election, a fear highlighted by the question currently being raised about her military service, her past homophobic and bigoted statements, and her ties to the commonwealth.
The strength of Trump’s endorsement is also on the line. An Oz loss would be a blow for Trump, who backed the celebrity doctor despite concerns about the depth of his conservative convictions.
Will Fetterman advance?
The Pennsylvania Senate primary has long been widely seen a forgone conclusion — a series of polls have shown Fetterman with a sizable double-digit lead over his closest opponents, Rep. Conor Lamb and state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta.
But a bit of uncertainty was thrown into the race on Sunday when, after three days off the campaign trail, Fetterman’s campaign announced that the candidate had a stroke, was still in the hospital but was “well on my way to a full recovery.”
“I’m feeling much better, and the doctors tell me I didn’t suffer any cognitive damage,” Fetterman said. “Our campaign isn’t slowing down one bit, and we are still on track to win this primary on Tuesday, and flip this Senate seat in November.”
A win for Fetterman on Tuesday would set up a stark contrast with any nominee Republican the unconventional Democrat could face — and likely lead to questions about how his recent stroke may impact his general election campaign. The former mayor of Braddock — standing at 6-feet, 8-inches and looking more comfortable in shorts and a hoodie than a suit — is about a unique a candidate as Democrats will nominate this year. Fetterman is known for a brand of progressivism aimed to relate to blue collar voters throughout the commonwealth, a departure from the kind of nominee Democrats have previously selected in Pennsylvania.
Will Pennsylvania Republicans nominate an election denier for governor?
Republican strategists are worried that the party could blow its opportunity to pick off the Democratic-held governor’s office being vacated by Tom Wolf this November.
Trump endorsed a far-right contender, state Sen. Doug Mastriano — who is best known for embracing Trump’s lies about fraud in the 2020 election and who was pictured outside the Capitol on January 6, 2021, the day of the insurrection — over former Rep. Lou Barletta, the candidate most party strategists see as the strongest general election candidate even though he too has embraced Trump’s lies about the 2020 election.
Democrats are all but certain to nominate state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who has in turn tried to boost Mastriano, seeing him as the easiest Republican to beat in November. In an ad, Shapiro highlighted Mastriano’s election lies, his desire to end mail-in voting and his opposition to abortion rights, positions that could help him win Tuesday but hurt his standing with suburban swing voters this fall.
The stakes are high: In Pennsylvania, the governor appoints the secretary of state — the person in charge of running Pennsylvania’s elections and signing off on its electors. Mastriano has already backed an effort to overturn voters’ will in 2020.
Big money tries to pick off progressives in Democratic House primaries
The exodus of retiring Democratic House members ahead of the midterms created an opportunity for progressives to make a big push, at — they thought — a lesser cost in safe blue congressional districts.
But those efforts, many of which began more than a year ago, are facing a late bombardment of outside spending from dark money groups supporting moderate candidates.
In an open-seat race in Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District and two more in North Carolina’s 1st and 4th Districts, super PACs are pouring staggering amounts of cash in an effort to beat progressive candidates on the ballot on Tuesday and the coming weeks — and lay down marker ahead of future campaigns.
Progressives are not without some firepower of their own. The campaign arms of Justice Democrats and the Working Families Party are spending. Still, they are struggling to keep up with groups like United Democracy Project, a new PAC connected to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee; Democratic Majority for Israel; and Mainstream Democrats PAC, which is largely funded by Linkedin co-founder Reid Hoffman.
Different combinations of those organizations, along with Center Forward, a group closely tied to the pharmaceutical industry, are also heavily invested in protecting a pair of incumbents — Oregon Rep. Kurt Schrader and Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar, whose primary runoff is next week, against progressive challengers.
Oregon’s new House map attracts fresh candidates — and a ton of outside money
Schrader, President Joe Biden’s first midterm endorsement, is facing a serious challenge on Tuesday from Jamie McLeod-Skinner, who has amassed local support in the state’s newly drawn 5th Congressional District.
The district’s new borders mean that more than half of primary voters will be seeing Schrader, who is vying for an eighth term, on their ballots for the first time. That unfamiliarity, in addition to his controversial recent votes — one against a measure allowing the government to negotiate drug prices (he proposed an alternative provision) and another against Biden’s 2021 pandemic relief package, the American Rescue Plan — has fired up progressives and enraged local leaders. Four counties across the district took the unusual step of endorsing McLeod-Skinner.
But Schrader has received significant cover from Center Forward — more than $1 from the group alone — in an increasingly expensive primary ahead of what’s expected to be a close general election.
There is also a stunning amount of cash coming into the race for Oregon’s new 6th District. The Protect Our Future PAC, backed by cryptocurrency billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried, has spent nearly $11 million in support of political newcomer Carrick Flynn. It recently launched a nearly $1 million attack on Oregon state Rep. Andrea Salinas, one of Flynn’s primary rivals.
Trump tested in North Carolina
In North Carolina, the GOP primary to replace retiring Republican Sen. Richard Burr is another test of Trump’s ability to steer the party toward his preferred candidates.
Trump-backed Rep. Ted Budd is the favorite in a field that also includes former Gov. Pat McCrory and Rep. Mark Walker. Budd was the first non-incumbent candidate Trump endorsed in the 2022 midterm election cycle — and he’s also backed by massive spending from the conservative Club for Growth’s political arm.
The winner is likely to face Democratic former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley, who would make history if she wins in November by becoming North Carolina’s first Black senator.
North Carolina also features several key House races to watch — including embattled Republican Rep. Madison Cawthorn’s effort to survive a primary challenge for his 11th District seat. Though Trump has stuck with Cawthorn through a series of scandals, North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis has backed state Sen. Chuck Edwards against Cawthorn. Cawthorn himself once backed one of his opponents, former local GOP official Michele Woodhouse, in a previous version of North Carolina’s congressional district map that has since been thrown out by courts.
Other candidates to watch in North Carolina include Clay Aiken, the former “American Idol” contestant seeking the Democratic nomination in the 4th District, and Bo Hines, the Trump-endorsed 26-year-old former college football player running in the 13th District.
A bitter battle in Idaho
The most bitter primary on Tuesday’s schedule may be in Idaho, where Republican Gov. Brad Little faces his own lieutenant governor, Janice McGeachin.
Rather than running on the same ticket, Idaho elects both positions separately. And when the governor travels out of state, the lieutenant governor serves as acting governor. McGeachin used that power twice to implement executive orders while Little was out banning mask and vaccine mandates, both of which were repealed within hours upon Little’s return.
Little supported the Texas lawsuit to invalidate some states’ 2020 election results. Still, Trump has endorsed McGeachin, a far-right figure who spoke virtually at an event organized by a White nationalist in February.
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