After big wins in Virginia and Alabama last year, Democrats are poised to make gains in this November’s midterm elections.
But first, a series of contentious Democratic primaries could shape how well the party fares in November, as well as the ideological character of the incoming Democratic elected officials.
Here are some of the most pivotal Democratic Party primaries to watch in 2018.
And here’s HuffPost’s rundown of fractious Republican primaries that bear watching this year.
The battle to unseat Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, an unpopular former private equity titan, has already prompted massive spending on the Democratic side. J.B. Pritzker, the billionaire private equity magnate and heir of the Hyatt hotel chain, has already spent $21 million, and has an additional $21 million in cash on hand. Pritzker’s spending has bought him a place at the top of the pack, with 39 percent support among primary voters, according to an October poll conducted by Capitol Fax/We Ask America.
Chris Kennedy, a businessman and son of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, had just 15 percent in the same poll. Kennedy has lately made a play for the support of black voters, attacking Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) for presiding over a “strategic gentrification plan ... to push people of color out of the city.”
But more than one-third of Democratic voters remain undecided, according to the Capitol Fax/We Ask America survey, which means the race is very much in flux.
Illinois’ diehard progressives may have a hard time getting excited about the contest. The most liberal competitive candidate, state Sen. Daniel Biss, rankled some left-wing activists when he jettisoned Chicago Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa as his running mate after Ramirez-Rosa refused to renounce the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel.
Illinois 3rd Congressional District
Newman, a former partner at an advertising agency who went on to found an anti-bullying nonprofit, is running on a mainstream liberal platform that would make her hard to distinguish from many other members of the House Democratic Caucus. But compared with Lipinski, she’s the second coming of Elizabeth Warren. In addition to favoring abortion restrictions, Lipinski has opposed a law that would protect LGBT Americans from workplace discrimination, and has taken several conservative stances on immigration, including by voting against a 2010 version of the Dream Act. (Last summer, Lipinski co-sponsored a bill extending legal protection for undocumented immigrants who benefitted from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.)
Lipinski’s deviations from the increasingly progressive Democratic Party consensus have been enough for Newman to win endorsements from mainstream liberal groups, like NARAL Pro-Choice America, the Human Rights Campaign and New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s political action committee, as well as more predictable players like Daily Kos, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Democracy for America and MoveOn.org. Meanwhile, Planned Parenthood Action Fund, Emily’s List and a long list of influential labor unions have yet to endorse in the race.
Illinois 4th Congressional District
In the campaign to succeed retiring Rep. Luis Gutíerrez (D-Ill.), whose majority-Latino seat in Chicago and its suburbs is reliably Democratic, the distinctions between two leading contenders ― Cook County Commissioner Jesús “Chuy” García, 61, and Chicago Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, 28 ― can seem superficial to the point of insignificance.
Rather than a fight over big policy differences, the battle appears to be a choice between García’s grandfatherly gravitas, decades of progressive experience and old-school mustache, and Ramirez-Rosa’s youthful exuberance, penchant for democratic socialism and hip undercut coiffeur.
And indeed, assuming that either García or Ramirez-Rosa emerges as the Democratic nominee ― an outcome that is all but certain ― the district’s progressive activists are assured a reliable fighter in Washington. Both candidates are to the left of Gutíerrez, an outspoken immigrant rights champion who has nonetheless maintained close ties to establishment party leaders, including centrist Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D), whose 2015 re-election Gutíerrez backed. García, whose early endorsement of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the 2016 presidential race has earned him the senator’s backing this time around, ran a competitive, albeit ultimately unsuccessful, challenge against Emanuel in 2015 that forced the first mayoral runoff in Chicago history. And since Ramirez-Rosa’s 2015 election, he has become one of Emanuel’s most unrelenting critics on the Chicago city council.
On policy, García and Ramirez-Rosa both embrace progressive priorities, from Medicare-for-all and a $15 minimum wage to the broadest possible protection of undocumented immigrants. An area of divergence is on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, or BDS, movement against Israel, which Ramirez-Rosa, unlike García, has refused to unequivocally condemn.
But a victory for Ramirez-Rosa, the underdog in the race, would mark an historic milestone for the newly energized, socialism-infused American left. Ramirez-Rosa, who would be the first openly gay Latino member of Congress, would also be the only dues-paying member of the Democratic Socialists of America in the current Congress.
Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who has cruised to re-election four times since first taking office in 1992, now faces serious competition from the left. California state Senate President Kevin de León, 51, a former teacher union organizer whose parents were Guatemalan immigrants, is the most prominent challenger thus far.
Alison Hartson, a 37-year-old leader of WolfPAC, a group trying to get money out of politics, is also mounting an underdog bid to unseat Feinstein. Hartson, a former high school teacher, enjoys the endorsement of left-leaning Justice Democrats, a group tied to The Young Turks, a popular progressive online outlet where Hartson announced her bid.
Feinstein, a former San Francisco mayor who, at 84, is the oldest member of the Senate, has long attracted progressive ire for centrist positions on national security, such as support for the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone data. Feinstein opposes single-payer health care and publicly disapproved of the 2016 ballot measure legalizing recreational marijuana in California. She also frustrated liberals in August when she expressed her view that if Donald Trump can “learn and change,” he can be “a good president.”
Feinstein holds major structural advantages in the race. She has $4 million in cash on hand, and the backing of other leading California Democrats, including Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a top contender in the 2018 gubernatorial race.
California’s unique top-two “jungle primary” system also provides Feinstein a key edge. The senior senator will face De León, Hartson, Republican contenders, and other challengers in an all-party primary on June 5.
The top two performers in that contest will then vie for votes in the general election on Nov. 6. If Feinstein and a more progressive candidate are on the ballot together, Republicans and moderate independents could propel her to victory out of disdain for the alternative.
Even if de León loses in the general election, a Senate race without a Republican choice is liable to drive down overall Republican turnout. That could help Democrats unseat vulnerable Republican House members.
Notwithstanding his 66 percent approval rating, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) has drawn seven Democratic challengers. The contenders are Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker; Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz; former NAACP President Ben Jealous; state Sen. Richard Madaleno; attorney James Shea; tech entrepreneur Alec Ross; and former Michelle Obama aide Krishanti Vignarajah.
Jealous, a prominent supporter of Sanders’ presidential bid, has attracted the most interest from progressive activists and organizations, and has the backing of Sanders and his group Our Revolution. Among other ambitious proposals, Jealous is campaigning for state-level single-payer health insurance in Maryland, and for free public college or vocational training. If Jealous performs well, it will likely reflect positively on the power of Sanders’ blessing and coattails.
An eighth contender, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, a progressive policy consultant with years of experience fighting to protect and expand Social Security and Medicare, suspended her campaign on Friday for what she told supporters were “personal reasons.” Politico reported that Rockeymoore Cummings’ decision to leave the race was linked to a deterioration in the health of her husband, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), who was hospitalized this week for a procedure to drain an infection.
In an early October poll released before Rockeymoore Cummings entered the race, Baker fared the best in a hypothetical matchup against Hogan, followed by Kamenetz, Jealous and Madaleno.
With Democrats eager to claw back a sliver of their former glory in Michigan, the Democratic gubernatorial primary is shaping up to be a heated battle over how best to do that. Former state Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer (D), the establishment favorite, has the endorsements of Emily’s List, several fellow Democratic state lawmakers, former Gov. Jim Blanchard (D), and some labor unions. Whitmer, 46, has emphasized creating decent-paying jobs by promoting skilled trades and funding vocational training programs, as well as fighting for paid family leave and a $15 minimum wage. A December poll shows Whitmer trailing Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette by 3 percentage points in a hypothetical matchup.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, a 33-year-old former Detroit health director, is running against Whitmer from the left with a populist insurgent campaign that has excited the party’s Sanders wing. During his tenure as Detroit’s chief public health official, El-Sayed, a physician with a Ph.D. in epidemiology, drew accolades for, among other innovations, a program to provide free eyeglasses to Detroit’s low-income schoolchildren. He proposes creating a state-level public health insurance program to help achieve affordable coverage, and establishing universal pre-K education ― stances that have helped him pick up the backing of local chapters of Our Revolution and the Michigan Nurses Association. If elected, El-Sayed would be the country’s first Muslim governor.
Some of the state’s most influential labor unions, including the United Auto Workers, Michigan Education Association and Service Employees International Union, have sat out the race thus far. Their involvement could prove pivotal later.
In Georgia, where Democrats hope revulsion of Trump’s presidency and increasing diversity have put the state within their grasp for the first time since 2002, state House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams is locked in an already-tight battle with state Rep. Stacey Evans.
Abrams, who is black, has sought to claim the progressive mantle, locking up the endorsements of national groups like Emily’s List and Democracy for America. She has emphasized her desire to win without appealing to conservative whites, who have left the party in recent years. If she wins, she’d become the country’s first black woman governor.
But Abrams has no shortage of detractors in Georgia’s Democratic ranks. Critics, including Evans, who is white, criticize Abrams for cooperating with Republicans too easily on cuts to liberal priorities, like the state’s HOPE scholarship program for public universities. On other issues, like her support for charter schools and state takeovers of challenged schools, Evans is more in line with the pro-business wing of the party.
Evans, a HOPE scholarship recipient, is running on reversing cuts to the college-tuition program (a priority Abrams also supports). She wowed pundits with an opening advertisement about her rise from a childhood of rural poverty.
New York State Senate
In deep-blue New York, Republicans effectively control the state Senate. That’s surprising not so much because of the Empire State’s liberal reputation, but because Democrats technically have a 32-31 majority in the chamber. Republicans, though, have the support of eight Democrats in the GOP-aligned Independent Democratic Conference, and a ninth Democrat, Simcha Felder, who caucuses with Republicans. As a result, Democratic priorities that have passed the Assembly easily are stymied or watered down in the Senate.
Since Trump’s election, top New York Democrats have made statements pressuring Felder and the Independent Democratic Conference to return to the fold. There also have been grassroots protests against the renegade members.
Now, serious challengers have arisen to unseat the breakaway lawmakers in Sept. 11 primaries. Bronx attorney Lewis Kaminski and Alessandra Biaggi have signed up to take on Sen. Jeffrey Klein, the Independent Democratic Conference leader who represents the 34th Senate District. Brooklyn attorney Zellnor Myrie has announced a bid to unseat state Sen. Jesse Hamilton; former mayoral aide Jessica Ramos is challenging state Sen. Jose Peralta; and former City Councilman Robert Jackson is trying to replace state Sen. Marisol Alcantara.
Kentucky 6th Congressional District
Three Democrats are vying to unseat Rep. Andy Barr (R-Ky.), the only vulnerable Republican in the Kentucky House delegation. Lexington Mayor Jim Gray (D), a popular, openly gay construction magnate, instantly became a front runner when he entered the race in December. Gray’s entry disrupts the plans of Amy McGrath, the first female Marine to fly a combat mission in an F/A-18 fighter jet, whose video advertisement touting her experience as a pilot turned her into a viral sensation in August.
Reggie Thomas, an African-American state senator and law professor, is running as the most progressive contender. He vocally supports single-payer health care.
Aside from health care, however, there are few major policy disagreements among the three Democratic candidates. All combine socially liberal and progressive economic positions.
Instead, it is Gray’s popularity and broad name recognition in the district that led Democratic leaders to recruit him. Rep. John Yarmuth, Kentucky’s only Democratic congressman, does not endorse in party primaries, but was among those who encouraged Gray to enter the race.
“Jim’s a superstar down there,” Yarmuth said.
California 49th Congressional District
California has a number of U.S. House districts where Democrats are mounting competitive bids against Republican incumbents. And, in several of those races, progressive Democrats are battling other Democrats to make it into the top-two runoff. How those candidates fare will test the strength of left-wing organizations backing them, including Justice Democrats, a new group that has endorsed six Democratic House challengers in California alone.
One Justice Democrats-backed candidate who appears to have a solid shot is Doug Applegate, a retired Marine colonel challenging Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) to represent the 49th District. Applegate, who supports single-payer health care and free public college, narrowly lost to Issa in 2016. Among the Democratic candidates, Applegate’s fundraising trails that of progressive clean energy professional Mike Levin, but is slightly ahead of businessman Paul Kerr.