United States: Primaries In Conn., Minn., Wisc.: What To Watch For And Expect As Polls Close

Last Updated: August 23 2018
Article by John R. Russell IV

Primaries in three states on Tuesday will set the contours of some of fall's highest profile gubernatorial and US House contests, as both parties eye possible and long-pursued upsets in Connecticut, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.

Connecticut

CT-Gov (D & R): Democratic Gov. Dan Malloy decided not to seek a third term in the face of an ongoing economic crisis that's made him incredibly unpopular, and Republicans have a real chance to score a pickup in the fall.

Five Republicans are competing here, and there's no obvious frontrunner. The state party endorsed Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, who has led the few polls we've seen. Boughton, along with businessman Steve Obsitnik and former Trumbull First Selectman Tim Herbst, are participating in the state's public financing program, which gives them each $1.35 million for the primary but caps their spending at $1.6 million.

Two businessmen, David Stemerman and Bob Stefanowski, are mostly self-funding their bids and are therefore not limited in how much they can spend. Stemerman has spent a hefty $6.2 million during his campaign, while Stefanowski has spent $2.9 million. Both Stefanowski and Stemerman have also aired commercials attacking one another while largely laying off their rivals. A survey earlier this month from the Democratic firm Tremont Public Advisors had Boughton leading Stefanowski 32-22, with Stemerman at 17.

Things are much more lopsided for the Democrats. The state party establishment, as well as a number of prominent unions, are supporting wealthy businessman Ned Lamont, who notably defeated Sen. Joe Lieberman in the 2006 primary before losing the general election to Lieberman's independent campaign; Lamont also lost the 2010 primary to Malloy. The only other Democrat in the race is Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim, who spent several years in prison for corruption but regained his old office in 2015. Lamont has outspent Ganim $2.6 million to $600,000 during the campaign.

CT-05 (D & R) (50-46 Clinton, 54-45 Obama): Democratic Rep. Elizabeth Esty announced she would retire in the spring after news broke that she'd inadequately handled an abusive staffer.

Former Simsbury First Selectwoman Mary Glassman narrowly won the endorsement of the Democratic Party endorsement over former high school teacher Jahana Hayes, the 2016 National Teacher of the Year. Glassman has the backing of several of Connecticut's House members, but several unions and Sen. Chris Murphy are supporting Hayes, who would be the first black woman to represent the state in Congress. Glassman outspent Hayes $220,000 to $59,000 from July 1 to July 25 (which the FEC calls the "pre-primary period"), but Hayes had more money in the bank for the final weeks of the race.

This western Connecticut seat has been competitive territory in the past, and Republicans hope that retiring Gov. Dan Malloy's unpopularity will give them an opening. However, none of the three Republican candidates have raised much money. The top fundraiser is retired psychology professor Ruby O'Neill, who outspent businessman Rich DuPont $57,000 to $33,000 in the pre-primary period. Former Meriden Mayor Manny Santos spent only $6,000 during this time, but he has the state party endorsement.

Minnesota

MN-Gov (D & R): Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton is retiring after two terms, and both parties will fight hard to win this contest in the fall. The Democratic primary is a three-way race between Attorney General Lori Swanson, Rep. Tim Walz, and state Rep. Erin Murphy.

Swanson only entered the race in early June, but she brought plenty of name recognition with her. However, her campaign has faced some tough stories in the two months since. News broke in July that Rep. Rick Nolan, who is Swanson's running mate, had hired a former employee for his 2016 re-election campaign even though the aide had previously left Nolan's legislative staff after multiple women accused him of sexual harassment. In the final week of the contest, former staffers at the attorney general's office charged that Swanson had pressured government employees into doing political work for her. Two polls taken in July, before the Nolan story broke, showed Swanson leading the primary, but we have no new data since then.

Walz, who represents a competitive congressional seat in the southern part of the state, looked like the frontrunner throughout most of the race, and he and his allies have outspent the rest of the field. However, Murphy, who has been trying to run to the left of the pack, has Dayton's support as well as the official endorsement of the state Democratic Party.

On the GOP side, former Gov. Tim Pawlenty is seeking to regain his old seat eight years after leaving office and embarking on an unsuccessful presidential bid. He faces Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, who lost the 2014 general election to Dayton 50-44. Pawlenty has considerably more money and name recognition, and the few polls we've seen have shown him far ahead. Johnson, however, has the state GOP's backing, and he's tried to position himself to Pawlenty's right. The former governor went up with a negative TV ad last month, so he's at least taking Johnson seriously as a threat.

MN-01 (R) (53-39 Trump, 50-48 Obama): Democratic Rep. Tim Walz is leaving this competitive southern Minnesota seat behind to run for governor, and Republicans are hoping its sharp swing towards Trump will give them a big opening in the fall. The GOP candidates are state Sen. Carla Nelson and businessman Jim Hagedorn, who narrowly lost to Walz in 2016 in a race that had looked safe for Team Blue until election night.

Nelson outspent Hagedorn $126,000 to $93,000 during the pre-primary period, though he had more money left for the final weeks of the contest. Nelson does have the NRA in her corner, while Hagedorn has the party endorsement. Still, some Republicans are anxious about nominating Hagedorn, who has a long history of misogynist comments, birther ramblings, and comments about "ungrateful" and "dead Indians." Whoever emerges will take on former Defense Department official Dan Feehan, who faces little opposition in the Democratic primary.

MN-05 (D) (73-18 Clinton, 74-24 Obama): Rep. Keith Ellison announced on the final day of candidate filing that he was leaving this safely blue Minneapolis seat to run for attorney general to succeed Lori Swanson, who herself had just announced a last-minute bid for governor. Several Democrats quickly entered the race for Ellison's seat, and the main candidates look like former Minnesota House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, state Rep. Ilhan Omar, and state Sen. Patricia Torres Ray.

Kelliher narrowly lost the 2010 primary for governor to Mark Dayton. Omar, who would be the nation's first Somali-American member of Congress, has endorsements from Dayton, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, and the state party. Torres Ray would also make history as Minnesota's first Hispanic member of Congress, but she's raised considerably less money than her two main opponents.

MN-08 (D) (54-39 Trump, 52-46 Obama): Democratic Rep. Rick Nolan is retiring from a seat in the Iron Range in the northeast corner of the state. This area is ancestrally Democratic but shifted hard towards Trump, and Republicans are excited about St. Louis County Commissioner Pete Stauber, who faces no serious primary opposition.

There are three main Democratic candidates. State Rep. Jason Metsa and former state Rep. Joe Radinovich, who was Nolan's campaign manager during his tight 2016 re-election campaign, have the most money and support from party elites. Radinovich, who has had the airwaves to himself, outspent Metsa $124,000 to $82,000 during the pre-primary period, and they both had a similar amount of cash left for the final weeks of the race. However, while retired Duluth news anchor Michelle Lee has raised and spent very little money or attracted much support from Democratic power players, she does have name recognition from her decades on TV.

Mining is one of the key issues in this contest. Mesta is the Democrat closest to mining interests and he has the backing of the United Steelworkers. Lee in particular has emphasized her opposition to local copper-nickel mining and its effects on the environment. Radinovich has tried to position himself in the middle on this issue while focusing more on healthcare.

Vermont

VT Gov (R): Gov. Phil Scott, a centrist Republican stock-car driver, was once one of the most popular governors in the country — beloved by Republicans, Democrats and independents. But then, in April, he signed three historic gun-control laws, drawing fierce protests from residents of this traditionally pro-gun state. In a Morning Consult poll conducted after the signing, Scott's popularity among Republicans dropped by 26 percentage points, and he now has a -15 net approval rating with voters of his own party. That could be a problem on Tuesday, given that shopkeeper Keith Stern is challenging Scott from the right, specifically criticizing Scott for signing the gun bills. The Republican Governors Association is acting like this is a competitive race: It has invested more than $1 million in a PAC supporting Scott's re-election.

If Scott does lose the primary, then Stern, a more mainstream conservative, would instantly become a heavy underdog in this dark-blue state. (Going by our new and improved partisan lean metric,1 Vermont is 24 points more Democratic-leaning than the country as a whole.) Although none of the Democratic candidates has lit the world on fire financially, the favorite in the Democratic primary is probably former Vermont Electric Cooperative CEO Christine Hallquist, who, if elected, would be the nation's first transgender governor.

Wisconsin

WI-Gov (D): Democrats have a crowded contest to take on GOP Gov. Scott Walker. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers, the only statewide official running, has had decisive leads in the few polls we've seen, while his rivals have all been far behind.

However, former state Rep. Kelda Helen Roys, who would be the first woman to serve as governor, spent considerably more money than the rest of the field during July, which could help her get her name out late in the race. Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin president Mahlon Mitchell, who would be Wisconsin's first black governor, has also spent a credible amount of money, and he's backed by several unions. Attorney Matt Flynn, campaign finance reform activist Mike McCabe, Madison Mayor Paul Soglin, and state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout are also in.

WI-Sen (R): Republicans have hosted an extremely expensive contest to take on Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin. In one corner is businessman and Marine veteran Kevin Nicholson, who has benefited from over $10 million in spending from groups supported by conservative megadonor Richard Uihlein. In the other is state Sen. Leah Vukmir, who has received $2.5 million in air support from groups funded by Diane Hendricks, another conservative megadonor, and the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce.

Nicholson has pitched himself as a conservative outsider, while Vukmir is much closer to the state GOP establishment and touts endorsements from both the state party and most of the state's House delegation (including retiring Speaker Paul Ryan). Vukmir and her allies have taken aim at Nicholson's tenure as president of the College Democrats of America, including his 2000 speech at the Democratic National Convention in support of Al Gore. Nicholson and his supporters have hit back against Vukmir for expressing past doubts about Donald Trump. A few polls in July showed Nicholson ahead, but we haven't seen any fresh numbers in weeks.

WI-01 (D) (53-42 Trump, 52-47 Romney): Speaker Paul Ryan is retiring from this southern Wisconsin seat, and the GOP quickly closed ranks behind attorney Bryan Steil. Democrats are hoping to make a play for this district, and they have a battle between ironworker Randy Bryce and Janesville School Board member Cathy Myers.

Bryce entered the race last year with a strong announcement video promoting him as a blue-collar American who will stand up to the GOP, which helped him raise gobs of money. He also has the support of the DCCC, Bernie Sanders, and several unions. However, Bryce has attracted some bad headlines over the last year. Most notably, he only paid off some old debts, including $1,300 in child support and a $2,000 loan from almost two decades ago, well after he kicked off his campaign. Myers has raised considerably less money and generated much less attention, either good or bad.

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