WASHINGTON – Primary voters on Tuesday will decide the fate of two South Carolina Republicans who are clinging to their seats in the U.S. House after defying Donald Trump, while in Nevada an establishment favorite with the former president's endorsement is facing a tougher than expected challenge for the U.S. Senate.
Meanwhile, in Maine, a bellicose former governor who once said he was “Trump before Trump” has come out of retirement in Florida to challenge a nemesis for his old job.
Primary contests in South Carolina, Nevada and Maine on Tuesday will offer the latest test of the Trump political brand. North Dakota is also holding elections, though Republican U.S. Sen. John Hoeven doesn't face a serious challenger.
What to watch:
Trump has backed former state Attorney General Adam Laxalt for the U.S. Senate and Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo for governor. Just how well they do on Tuesday will gauge the potency of a Trump endorsement, which has delivered mixed results this midterm campaign season.
Laxalt's political pedigree has helped make him a front-runner. His grandfather Paul Laxalt was a Nevada governor and senator. And Laxalt’s father is late U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico, who publicly acknowledged his paternity for the first time in 2013. Besides Trump, Laxalt also has the endorsement of much of Washington's GOP establishment as he seeks to run in November against first-term Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, who is considered among the most vulnerable senators.
But Laxalt, who was largely raised near Washington, D.C., and served as a judge advocate general in the Navy, has faced a stronger than anticipated challenge.
Retired Army Capt. Sam Brown, a West Point graduate and Purple Heart recipient who was badly burned in Afghanistan, is running as a conservative outsider. He has drawn crowds and has won the support of those who view Laxalt as too cozy with the establishment. He also has the endorsement of the Nevada Republican Party.
In the governor's race, Lombardo, the head of the Las Vegas Police Department, is hoping to face Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak in November. But first he has to get past a Republican primary challenge from former U.S. Sen. Dean Heller and Joey Gilbert, a lawyer and former boxer, who was outside the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
Beyond the marquee races, the state's Republican primary for secretary of state will also offer a measure of Trump's enduring grip on the GOP.
Nevada Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske, a Republican, is leaving office because of term limit laws. In 2020, she refused to cave to Trump's pressure campaign to overturn his defeat in the state's presidential election, vowing she would not “put my thumb on the scale of democracy.”
Six Republicans are vying for the seat, including Jim Marchant, a former state lawmaker who has embraced Trump's lies about widespread voter fraud in the state. His website makes his position abundantly clear: My “number one priority will be to overhaul the fraudulent election system in Nevada."
Democrats have united behind secretary of state candidate Cisco Aguilar, an attorney who previously worked for Harry Reid, the former Democratic Senate leader who died last year.
Loyalty can be a fickle thing for Trump. And a perceived lack of it is the driving force behind heated primary challenges to two South Carolina Republicans in the U.S. House.
Rep. Nancy Mace worked on Trump’s 2016 campaign and earned his endorsement when she ousted incumbent Democrat Joe Cunningham from a coastal swing district four years later.
But shortly after her swearing-in, a pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol, and Mace went on national TV to declare that Trump’s “entire legacy was wiped out” by the attack. Trump was furious and recruited a challenger, former state Rep. Katie Arrington, who helped oust Mark Sanford from the U.S. House in 2018.
In Congress, Mace has sought to mend fences — sort of. She voted against Trump’s second impeachment and opposed the creation of a 9/11-style commission to investigate the origins of the Jan. 6 attack, which was inspired by Trump’s lies about a stolen election.
But she also voted to hold former Trump campaign manager Steve Bannon in contempt of Congress for refusing to cooperate with the Jan. 6 investigation. And she has feuded publicly with Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, a far-right flamethrower and Trump acolyte.
Mace is not the only South Carolina candidate to draw his ire.
Trump also solicited challengers to primary U.S. Rep. Tom Rice, after he voted to impeach the the president over the Jan. 6 insurrection. Now Rice is facing six other Republicans, all of whom have cited the impeachment vote as a chief motivator to their campaigns.
Trump eventually settled on endorsing state Rep. Russell Fry, who has run TV ads likening Rice to villains including Satan. Fry told voters during a recent debate that “we’re going to vote to impeach Tom Rice at the ballot box.”
Rice, on on the other hand, has focused on important but far more mundane matters, like his successes securing flood remediation funding and assistance for the region’s farmers over his five terms in office.
Maine’s gubernatorial primaries are a mere formality, with one Democrat and one Republican seeking the office. But they will lock in what promises to be a doozy of a general election, pitting two longtime foes against each other.
Democratic incumbent Janet Mills is seeking a second term. She’s a former district attorney, state lawmaker and Maine attorney general who frequently clashed with Republican Paul LePage when he was governor. Now he is challenging her.
That the two are even competing against each other is somewhat of a surprise.
LePage, who once described himself as “Trump before there was Trump,” moved to Florida after leaving office in 2019 following two raucous terms that often drew national attention for his indecorous remarks.
But the draw of elected office was apparently too great. By 2020, he was back in Maine pledging to challenge his old nemesis, whom he accuses of “reckless spending” and “heavy-handed” pandemic directives.
So far, LePage lags in fundraising behind Mills, but the race is expected to be among the most competitive governor’s races in the country this year.
Associated Press writers Meg Kinnard in Columbia, S.C., David Sharp in Portland, Maine, and Scott Sonner in Reno, Nev., contributed to this report.
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