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It’s March Madness for Congressional Primaries

It’s March Madness for Congressional Primaries

February 2024

By Nathan Gonzales,
Inside Elections Editor and Publisher
Public Affairs Council Senior Political Analyst

In the face of all the attention on the presidential race, college basketball, and Taylor Swift’s upcoming album, don’t forget that March is a hugely consequential month for congressional primaries. With the general election almost nine months away, it can be hard to imagine that critical races are approaching. But that’s precisely what’s happening.

Considering that the majority of states and districts are either solidly Republican or solidly Democratic, the primaries effectively choose the next member of Congress because the general election is more of a formality. And many of those important primaries are coming quickly.

Six states will host three key Senate primaries and more than two dozen important House primaries, including Alabama, California, North Carolina and Texas on March 5, and Illinois and Ohio on March 19. More than a third (16 of 43) of the current list of House open seats will have their initial primaries in March.

To put it another way, anyone or any group that wants to have a say in who’s going to Capitol Hill next year had better pay attention to many of these races, because once the primary is over, it will be too late to make an impact.

March 5

In Alabama’s 1st District, the most important race is the GOP primary between two incumbents, Jerry Carl and Barry Moore, after redistricting made Moore’s district largely unwinnable for a Republican.

The Democratic primary is the most important race in the 2nd District. It’s an open seat because of redistricting and Moore’s decision to run in the 1st. With 11 Democrats and no incumbent, the race is likely to go to an April 2 runoff. Former U.S. Justice Department official Shomari Figures, state Rep. Napoleon Bracy and state House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels are in the top tier.

In California, all candidates run together in the primary, any registered voter can vote in the primary, and the top two candidates move on to the general election, regardless of party.

The California Senate race is probably the biggest contest. Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff looks like a lock for one of the general election spots while fellow Democratic Rep. Katie Porter and Republican Steve Garvey battle for the second slot. Democrats will hold the seat in November; it’s just not 100% clear which Democrat and if two Democrats will face off in November.

There are also close to a dozen interesting House races in the Golden State, though it’s already clear which candidates will face off in November, the primary is consequential in a number of districts.

In the 12th District race to replace Democrat Barbara Lee in the Oakland/Berkeley area, Democrat Lateefah Simon, a Bay Area Rapid Transit board member, is the front-runner, but Navy veteran Tim Sanchez and Jennifer Tran, president of the Oakland Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce, are running as well.

In Silicon Valley, a crowd of Democrats are facing off to replace Democratic Rep. Anna Eshoo in the 16th District. Former San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, Santa Clara Supervisor Joe Simitian, Assemblymember Evan Low, Palo Alto Councilwoman Julie Lythcott-Haims, Marine veteran Peter Dixon and others are running.

The 20th District primary election for the seat that former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy vacated in December will take place on March 5, while the primary for the special election to fill out the rest of his term will be on March 19. Republicans are likely to hold the seat in the Eastern Central Valley with either Assemblyman Vince Fong (who has McCarthy’s endorsement), casino executive Kyle Kirkland or Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux.

The most volatile primary in California is probably the 22nd District, which includes the southern Central Valley. Any combination of the two Republicans, Rep. David Valadao or 2022 GOP candidate/farmer Chris Mathys, and the two Democrats, 2022 nominee Rudy Salas and state Sen. Melissa Hurtado, could make the top two. The result will frame how the parties approach the competitive general election.

Seventeen candidates are battling to replace Schiff in the 30th District, which includes parts of Los Angeles, Burbank and Glendale. The seat will stay in Democratic hands, but which Democrat is an open question. Boy Meets World actor Ben Savage is a long shot.

In the 31st District, which includes the eastern San Gabriel Valley, two Democrats, state Sen. Susan Rubio and former Rep. Gil Cisneros, are the top contenders; the question is whether they both move on to the general election. The race is to replace Democratic Rep. Grace Napolitano.

In the eastern Orange County 40th District, Orange County Fire Captain Joe Kerr and Tustin Unified School District Board Member Allyson Muñiz Damikolas, both Democrats, are vying to take on GOP Rep. Young Kim.

It looks like a two-Democrat race for one slot in the 45th District, which includes western Orange County, between Garden Grove City Councilwoman Kim Nguyen-Penaloza and attorney/Army veteran Derek Tran. GOP Rep. Michelle Steel will make the top two and will be tough to defeat in November.

The 47th District, which covers coastal Orange County (including Costa Mesa) as well as Irvine, is open because of Porter’s Senate run. Scott Baugh, the 2022 GOP nominee, will likely finish in the top two, but two Democrats, state Sen. Dave Min and attorney Joanna Weiss, are battling for the second spot.

The 49th District stretches from southern Orange County south into northern San Diego County. A crowd of Republicans including Latina news executive Margarita Wilkinson, auto dealer and 2022 state Senate nominee Matt Gunderson, automotive marketer Sheryl Adams and Marine veteran Kate Monroe are vying for the second spot to take on Democratic Rep. Mike Levin in November.

A newly drawn map in North Carolina prompted three Democratic members not to seek reelection and endangered a fourth. Sandy Smith, the 2022 Republican nominee, and retired U.S. Army Col. Laurie Buckhout are running for the GOP nomination for the right to face Democratic Rep. Don Davis in the 1st District, which includes the inland, northeastern part of the state. The general election is rated as a toss-up.

In the central Piedmont’s 6th District, former Rep. Mark Walker, Bo Hines (the GOP nominee in the 13th in 2022), High Point Mayor Jay Wagner and Christian Castelli are running in the Republican primary, the most important contest considering it’s a GOP district now.

In the 8th District, which stretches east from Charlotte, there’s a competitive primary between 2018 nominee Mark Harris, state Rep. John Bradford, and former Union County Commissioner Allan Baucom. GOP Rep. Dan Bishop is leaving the seat to run for state attorney general.

With GOP Rep. Patrick McHenry not seeking reelection, former Green Beret Pat Harrigan, state Rep. Grey Mills, and others are running to replace him in the primary. The 10th District includes Winston-Salem and the western Piedmont region.

Democratic Rep. Wiley Nickel is leaving behind the 13th District, which includes the Raleigh exurbs and nearby rural areas. The important Republican primary features former federal prosecutor Brad Knott, Navy veteran Fred Von Canon, emergency room physician Josh McConkey and others. Candidates in this race and others need 30% of the vote to avoid a May 14 runoff.

In the Texas Senate race, Rep. Colin Allred might fall short of 50% in the Democratic primary against state Sen. Roland Gutierrez, and the race could go to a May 28 runoff, but party strategists are convinced that the congressman would be the strongest challenger to GOP incumbent Ted Cruz in one of the Democrats’ only takeover opportunities.

State Rep. Craig Goldman and construction company owner John O’Shea are battling in the GOP primary to replace longtime Rep. Kay Granger in the 12th District, which covers western Fort Worth and western suburbs.

Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee faces a serious primary challenge in the 18th District from former Houston City Council Member Amanda Edwards after losing the Houston mayoral race. GOP Rep. Tony Gonzales is trying to avoid a runoff in the 23rd District, which stretches from the San Antonio suburbs to suburban El Paso.

There’s a competitive GOP primary in the 26th District, including northern Fort Worth suburbs and exurbs, to replace Rep. Michael Burgess. The Republican field includes former Denton County Judge Scott Armey (Dick Armey’s son), Brandon Gill (Dinesh D’Souza’s son-in-law) and others. And there’s a competitive Democratic primary in the 32nd District in the north Dallas suburbs to replace Allred. State Rep. Julie Johnson and trauma surgeon Brian Williams make up the top tier.

March 19

In Illinois, longtime Democratic Rep. Danny Davis faces a serious primary challenge from progressive activist Kina Collins and others in the 7th District, which includes Chicago’s downtown and West Side.

Downstate, GOP Rep. Mike Bost faces a serious primary challenge from former state legislator Darren Bailey in the 12th District. Bost and allied groups are outspending Bailey by a wide margin, but Bailey has some residual name ID from his 2022 run for governor.

In Ohio, Republicans are sorting through a competitive primary before focusing on Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown in one of the two most important Senate races in the country. Businessman Bernie Moreno (who has Donald Trump’s endorsement), state Sen. Matt Dolan and Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose are seeking the nomination and don’t need to reach any threshold to avoid a runoff.

In the 2nd District, which includes southern Ohio and eastern Cincinnati suburbs, the winner of the GOP primary will replace Rep. Brad Wenstrup. State Sen. Niraj Antani, Clermont County GOP Chairman Charles Tassell, state Sen. Shane Wilkin, Marine veteran Tim O’Hara and a host of others are running.

There will be two primaries in the 6th District, the regular election and the special election to replace GOP Rep. Bill Johnson, who resigned to become the president of Youngstown State University. State Sen. Michael Rulli and state Rep. Reggie Stoltzfus look like the top contenders.

According to the numbers, Rep. Marcy Kaptur should be one of the most vulnerable Democrats in the country in her Toledo-area 9th District. She defeated J.R. Majewski last cycle, and Republicans are trying to avoid his being the nominee again. But it has been a comedy of errors as they backed away from their original preferred replacement, former state Rep. Craig Riedel, for state Rep. Derek Merrin. And in the end, Majewski might win the primary again.

Republicans are targeting Democratic Rep. Emilia Sykes in the Akron/Canton-area 13th District, but must choose between Hudson City Councilman Chris Banweg and former state Sen. Kevin Coughlin in the primary first.

Nathan L. Gonzales is a senior political analyst for the Public Affairs Council and editor of Inside Elections, a nonpartisan newsletter with a subscription package designed to boost PACs with a regular newsletter and exclusive conference call. You can also hear more on the Inside Elections Podcast. His email address is [email protected].

Considering that the majority of states and districts are either solidly Republican or solidly Democratic, the primaries effectively choose the next member of Congress because the general election is more of a formality. And many of those important primaries are coming quickly.

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