Four sets of primary elections Tuesday night confirmed the salience of former President Donald Trump’s endorsement, and were a reminder of the challenges Democrats could have in motivating their base to defend incumbents in November.
Nevada was the center of much of the political action Tuesday night, with heated Republican primaries unfolding for the US Senate, governor, and secretary of state seats. President Joe Biden won the state by a much narrower margin than expected in 2020 — and Republicans are hoping political tailwinds boost their efforts to take over all four of the state’s top offices.
Elsewhere, the power of former President Donald Trump’s endorsement shone through Republican primary competitions, with the former president’s picks sweeping the field in Nevada and North Dakota, and upsetting the standing of incumbents in South Carolina.
Those primaries, as well as ones in Maine (and a Texas special election) happened Tuesday night. Here are four winners and two losers from them.
Winner: Trump’s election lies
Election deniers won big in Nevada: Three candidates who’ll challenge Democrats in the fall ran at least in part on the lie that Donald Trump won the 2020 election.
In the race to take on incumbent Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, Adam Laxalt — the well-known, anti-abortion, pro-Trump former attorney general — cleared the field. He was Trump’s 2020 Nevada campaign co-chair, and has been an outspoken advocate for the lie that the 2020 election was stolen. Earlier this year, he declared he “sounded every alarm imaginable” after the 2020 election that it had been stolen.
An election denier also defeated an old establishment favorite in the Republican primary for Nevada governor. Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo will face incumbent Democratic governor Steve Sisolak, who actually beat Laxalt in a close race in 2018. Lombardo bested former Sen. Dean Heller, North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee, and outsider Joey Gilbert. Lombardo has also questioned Biden’s win — and hasn’t been shy about making election integrity part of his pitch to voters.
And another, more fervent, election truther won the primary for Nevada secretary of state. Jim Marchant, a former state assembly member, has made falsehoods about the 2020 election a central part of his campaign. “Your vote hasn’t counted for decades … you haven’t elected anybody. The people that are in office have been selected. You haven’t had a choice,” he told a crowd in February, according to a local Fox affiliate.
Marchant could throw the state’s administration of election into chaos fueled by conspiracy theories: He’s said he would not have certified Biden’s win two years ago, and has argued that the state should get rid of voting machines and return to hand counts.
It’s unclear how successful candidates this radical might be in a general election. The state has trended toward Democrats in the last few elections, but if Republicans gain momentum this fall — something they believe is possible due to Biden’s low approval ratings and general frustration with inflation — even weak candidates could do well. But for now, Trump can once again tout some big endorsement wins.
Winner: Donald Trump
Candidates with Trump endorsements have generally done well in their primaries thus far, but he had more of a mixed bag this week, with a pretty big victory in South Carolina as well as a notable loss.
While Russell Fry — a South Carolina state representative who earned Trump’s endorsement — was able to oust incumbent Rep. Tom Rice, former state lawmaker Katie Arrington was unable to do the same with incumbent Rep. Nancy Mace. Rice raised the president’s ire after voting to impeach him, while Mace did so after criticizing his false claims of election fraud. Although Rice lost his primary by double digits on Tuesday, Mace was able to eke out a win, underscoring the limitations of Trump’s endorsement.
Still Mace had to show she wasn’t overtly hostile to Trump in order to win. She took pains to remind voters of her early support for the former president, and didn’t offer any new critiques of him while on the trail. A Trump endorsement might not have been needed to win SC-01’s primary, but it seemed Mace’s campaign didn’t think bashing him would help either.
Trump scored some victories elsewhere as well. In Nevada, his pick for the US Senate race, Adam Laxalt held off a challenge from military veteran Sam Brown who’d won the endorsement of the state’s Republican party, in part by proving he was the Trumpier candidate. Trump’s gubernatorial candidate, Joe Lombardo, also came out ahead. And his choice for secretary of state, former state Assemblymember Jim Marchant, took the endorsement to the bank.
In North Dakota, incumbent Sen. John Hoeven won both the state party’s endorsement, and Trump’s backing. He easily trounced a conservative activist, and is a shoo-in for a general election victory. He’s also among the candidates Trump endorsed who was already widely expected to win.
—Li Zhou and CP
Winner: Nikki Haley
Mace’s victory on Tuesday was also a victory for former South Carolina governor and Trump’s one-time UN Ambassador Nikki Haley. Haley invested big in the Republican primary for South Carolina’s first district. She not only backed Mace, but filmed a television ad, headlined a fundraiser, and campaigned alongside her. The primary ultimately pitted Haley against Trump, her former boss, who opposed Mace given her criticism of him after the January 6 insurrection.
“She’s nasty, disloyal, and bad for the Republican Party,” Trump previously said about Mace. Last year, Mace said that she wanted to be a “new voice for the Republican Party,” though she stopped short of voting to impeach Trump or supporting an independent commission to look into the riot.
Since then, however, Mace has sought to tie herself more closely to Trump, going so far as to film a video in front of Trump Tower meant to emphasize that she was one of his earliest supporters.
Despite these efforts, Trump endorsed Arrington, who previously ran for Mace’s seat and lost against former Democratic Rep. Joe Cunningham. Mace has emphasized that the district is a battleground that’s less conservative than some other areas in the state, noting that she’s the only one of the two who’s won there.
While Trump may have abandoned her, multiple Republican leaders in the state stood by Mace. In addition to Haley, Mace was also endorsed by former Trump OMB director Mick Mulvaney. Haley’s involvement in this race also could portend a more direct face-off in 2024: She’s seen as a potential contender for the Republican presidential nomination who could well take on Trump.
Loser: Republican grassroots candidates
In both Maine and Nevada, Republican candidates who tried harnessing grassroots energy to mount an upset against entrenched rivals ended up falling short.
In Maine’s second congressional district, small business owner Liz Caruso lost to former House Rep. Bruce Poliquin after branding herself the “America First” candidate and the person most willing to challenge the status quo. Similarly, in the Nevada Senate primary, military veteran Sam Brown lost to former Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt, despite emphasizing his “outsider” status and racking up some strong fundraising numbers.
In both cases, Caruso and Brown went up against candidates with backing from national Republicans: Poliquin is supported by GOP groups like the Congressional Leadership Fund, while Laxalt has been endorsed by several Republican senators and Trump. That backing — not to mention voters’ familiarity with Poliquin and Laxalt — proved difficult to overcome.
Winner: Texas Republicans
Texas Republicans notched a symbolic — but short-lived — victory in a special House election on Tuesday triggered by Democratic Rep. Filemon Vela’s retirement. In the contest for Texas’s 34th district, health care worker Mayra Flores beat out the Democratic candidate, former Cameron County Commissioner Dan Sanchez, and avoided a runoff by winning more than 50 percent of the vote.
Flores’s win is significant because the district is a longstanding Democratic one that Republicans targeted aggressively in this special election after multiple South Texas counties flipped for the GOP in 2020. These efforts appear to have paid off — though Republicans likely benefited from low turnout in the special election.
Notably, however, the seat is set to flip back to Democrats soon. Flores will only serve in this role until January, when whoever wins the fall election will be sworn in. Because of redistricting, that person is likely to be a Democrat. Between now and November, the 34th will go from a moderate district to a solidly blue one. (While Biden won the current version of the district by just four percentage points, he won the new version by 16 percentage points.)
Still, Flores’ win allows Republicans to point to the momentum they’ve picked up in South Texas and in this year’s elections overall. It also speaks to GOP efforts to make inroads with Latino voters in the area, some of whom shifted right in 2020.
Loser: Progressive challengers
Nevada’s first congressional district saw what seemed to be a heated primary contest between a more moderate incumbent Democrat and a progressive, Bernie Sanders-backed challenger fizzle out. In the end, the sitting member of Congress, Rep. Dina Titus secured a a knock-out win.
A member of the Blue Dog caucus in the House, Titus has held the seat, which includes most of Las Vegas and parts of North Las Vegas, since 2013. Republicans have trained their attention on it as a prime opportunity to gain a seat in the fall. But on primary night, Titus led Amy Vilela, a former co-chair for Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign, by nearly 70 points.
In South Carolina, meanwhile, the establishment favorite, former US Rep. Joe Cunningham, beat back an upstart bid from a slightly more progressive state senator, Mia McLeod. He led by nearly 30 points on primary night.
Cunningham was lauded in DC Democratic circles for flipping a Republican seat in 2018, before losing to Nancy Mace in 2020. Though McLeod accused Cunningham of being a “Republican-lite” Democrat, the race boiled down to name recognition and electability.
It’ll be an uphill battle for any candidate trying to unseat incumbent South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster. Cunningham argues that his past win in the state suggests he has a proven ability of bringing both Democratic and crossover Republican voters together, however.
“We’ve got to energize the base and get Democrats out, but we also have to pull people over. And I’ve already been successful in getting those folks into the tent,” he said in a recent Washington Post interview.
Currently, Cunningham’s platform includes expanding Medicaid, raising teacher pay and defending abortion rights. His bid is still very much a long shot, though. Since 2003, South Carolina’s governor has been a Republican and conservatives have come out ahead in statewide races in recent years.
—CP and LZ