CHARLESTON, S.C. - Voters in five states will pick their nominees in House, Senate and gubernatorial races Tuesday, although some of the nominees in November's most closely watched races are expecting little drama. For that, the parties are nervously monitoring primaries in a half-dozen House seats, with highly touted challengers, once-safe incumbents and ideological insurgents fighting to change what their parties stand for.
Loyalty to the president has become a defining issue in a state whose Republican establishment worked to deny Donald Trump the presidential nomination. Gov. Henry McMaster, one of few established South Carolina Republicans who backed Trump in 2016, is seeking a full term for governor as an ally of the president.
"When you have a winning record like this, you don't fire the coach," McMaster told reporters Monday.
But four Republicans are working to beat McMaster, who may be pushed into a June 26 runoff. A runoff is less likely in the 1st Congressional District, where Rep. Mark Sanford, R, admits he is in a tight primary with state legislator Katie Arrington.
But one is nearly certain in the 4th Congressional District, where Rep. Trey Gowdy, R, is leaving one of the country's most reliably GOP seats and 12 Republicans are seeking to replace him. The Club for Growth has gotten behind radio host Josh Kimbrell, but state legislator William Timmons has led the field in fundraising and pastor Mark Burns is trying to parlay his role as one of Trump's most visible African American surrogates into a runoff slot.
There's less drama than tragedy in the 5th Congressional District, which Democrats nearly won in a 2017 special election - before it was revealed that Archie Parnell, the party's surprisingly adroit candidate, had once assaulted an ex-wife. Democrats urged him to quit, but Parnell released a statement asking for forgiveness and remained on the ballot. Whether or not Parnell wins, Democrats have effectively conceded the seat.
One year ago, Republicans were shocked when Prince William Board of County Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart nearly won their party's nomination for governor. Five years ago, they were shocked when pastor E.W. Jackson upset better-known (and less controversial) candidates to become their nominee for lieutenant governor.
This year, they're less shocked that Stewart and Jackson are running for Senate and are watching to see whether Nick Freitas, a state delegate and military veteran, can save them from the also-rans. The winner will face Sen. Tim Kaine, D, who has stocked more than $10 million for a race that rarely appears on GOP midterm maps.
Most of Tuesday's other races are battles for the Democratic nomination in competitive seats. In the 2nd Congressional District, national Democrats favor former Navy commander Elaine Luria over Karen Mallard, a teacher running to her left. In the 7th Congressional District they believe either retired CIA officer Abigail Spanberger or retired Marine Col. Dan Ward could be competitive in November against Rep. Dave Brat, R.
The party is more concerned about the 10th Congressional District, where Rep. Barbara Comstock, R, held on in 2016 even as Hillary Clinton carried her electorate by 10 points. The party recruited state Sen. Jennifer Wexton for the race, but five more candidates piled in. Alison Friedman, a State Department veteran who moved to the district last year, has more than doubled Wexton's fundraising; Dan Helmer, a veteran with no political experience, has gained attention with viral (and occasionally derided) web videos.
But Comstock has a primary of her own, with conservative activist Shak Hill selling himself as a "conservative fighter" who won't cross the president as Comstock sometimes has. Neither party expects Hill to win, but Democrats were perplexed when Vice President Mike Pence recorded robocalls for Comstock. To Republicans, it was an attempt to bury Hill's career for good. To Democrats, it was a hint that - in Virginia, at least - they might not be the most disorganized party.
For the first time, Maine will pick party nominees in a "ranked choice" system that lets voters assign preferences to several candidates. If no candidate wins an outright majority, ballot-counters eliminate the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes and redistribute that person's support to the runners-up - and so on, until one candidate comes out on top.
The system grew out of liberal anger that Republican Gov. Paul LePage won two elections with less than 50 percent of the vote. (His Democratic predecessor, John Baldacci, had won two elections with even fewer votes than LePage.) In November, the new system could end bellyaching about third-party "spoilers," or it could be undone by the voters.
But first, it'll be used to pick the nominees in two key primaries. The Republicans' four-way race for governor pits state Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason, who has taken public financing, against three candidates who've opted out of that system. The Democrats have a seven-way contest, with every candidate promising to end LePage's blockade of Medicaid expansion but several running further to the left.
The Democratic primary in the 2nd Congressional District has drawn more national attention as it's become a face-off between two kinds of candidates that the party has been trying to recruit in swing seats: Jared Golden, an Iraq War veteran and state representative, and Lucas St. Clair, the wealthy heir of the Burt's Bees fortune. The eventual winner will challenge Rep. Bruce Poliquin, R.
Republican chances of holding the House and Senate in November depend disproportionately on this state, where their fortunes have swung wildly in just a few years. In 2014, Republicans scooped up every winnable seat and statewide office; in 2016, Democrats ran the table, winning two House seats and beating one of the GOP's strongest Senate recruits.
This year, Democrats functionally avoided a primary for their biggest priority, the Senate seat now held by Republican Dean Heller. One-term Rep. Jacky Rosen, D, is favored to defeat five fringe candidates. Heller, who was helped when Trump personally urged activist Danny Tarkanian to leave the race, has no serious opposition.
But the White House's intervention might hurt the party down the ballot. Tarkanian, who lost the 3rd Congressional District to Rosen in 2016, plunged back into that race and raised four times as much money as his closest challenger - although Republicans would prefer to see him lose. The Democratic front-runner is Susie Lee, a philanthropist who previously lost a primary in the nearby 4th Congressional District and has locked up most party support for this race.
The Democratic-leaning 4th District, meanwhile, may set up a rematch between the players in one of 2014's biggest upsets. That year, voters there ousted Democrat Steven Horsford after one term and elected Republican Cresent Hardy, who was unseated in 2016 by a Democrat who in December announced a scandal-driven retirement. Horsford and Hardy are running again, and both have challengers.
Both parties will also decide competitive, pricey primaries for governor. Attorney General Adam Laxalt and state Treasurer Dan Schwartz, both of whom won in the 2014 red wave, are fighting for their party's nomination. Democrats will chose between Chris Giunchigliani and Steve Sisolak, both Clark County commissioners, who represent the left wing and business-friendly wings of their party, respectively.
Both parties anticipate an early night. In the Senate race, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D, has no challenger despite her frequent votes with the president, while Rep. Kevin Cramer, R, has largely cleared the field. The race for Cramer's open House seat has been dominated by state legislator Kelly Armstrong - no other Republican has filed an FEC report.