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What to watch in Pennsylvania’s and North Carolina’s primaries

Pennsylvania and North Carolina are among five states headed to the polls.

A crowd at a rally holding signs that read “Dr. Oz for Senate.”
Supporters of former President Donald Trump attend a campaign rally for Pennsylvania Republican Senate candidate Mehmet Oz on May 6, 2022, in Greensburg, Pennsylvania.
Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

Tuesday, May 17 will be one of the biggest primary days of the 2022 election cycle so far.

Five states — Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Idaho, Kentucky, and Oregon — will hold primaries for Senate seats, governor’s chairs, and House districts, all of which could reveal more about what direction both parties are headed.

Here are some of the themes we’re watching.

Trump’s influence faces some of its toughest tests yet

Another week of primaries, another test of Trump’s influence with GOP voters.

Thus far, most of Trump’s endorsements have been successful, except for his pick for Nebraska governor, businessman Charles Herbster. Tuesday’s race — which includes celebrities, far-right figures, and a beleaguered member of Congress — will provide new indications about how much the former president’s backing can help candidates overcome tough competition and their inherent weaknesses.

In Pennsylvania’s GOP Senate primary, Trump has backed Mehmet Oz, a celebrity doctor who’s previously faced scrutiny for peddling unproven and misleading medical treatments. Oz has seen a boost in polls since Trump’s endorsement, but his victory is far from assured. Businessman David McCormick as well as conservative commentator Kathy Barnette have been running close behind him in recent polls, as some Republicans question whether Oz is conservative enough.

Meanwhile, in the North Carolina GOP Senate primary, Trump is supporting Rep. Ted Budd, who currently boasts a strong polling lead. Budd, a House Republican who voted to contest the certification of the 2020 election results, is up against former Gov. Pat McCrory and former Rep. Mark Walker, both conservatives. However, Trump has criticized McCrory for losing past statewide contests, and urged Walker to consider running for the House again.

Trump has gotten involved in GOP gubernatorial primaries in two states as well. In Idaho’s primary, he is backing Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin — a proponent of a more extreme abortion ban than what the state is currently considering, among other far-right views — over incumbent Gov. Brad Little. And in Pennsylvania, Trump issued a last-minute endorsement for state Sen. Doug Mastriano, a lawmaker who was outside the Capitol during the January 6 insurrection. Mastriano is facing off against a number of other conservative candidates, including former Rep. Lou Barletta and businessman David White.

All these contests — and a slew of other races, including in North Carolina’s 13th Congressional District, where Trump is supporting former college football recruit Bo Hines in a crowded field — will signal how much sway the former president still has over voters. —Li Zhou

Establishment Republicans worry about the rise of more extreme candidates

Earlier this year, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell warned Republicans that poor candidate selection could become a major obstacle in Senate races despite the positive political environment the party is currently in.

“In the Senate, if you look at where we have to compete in order to get into a majority, there are places that are competitive in the general election,” McConnell said at a Kentucky event. “So you can’t nominate somebody who’s just sort of unacceptable to a broader group of people and win. We had that experience in 2010 and 2012.”

Effectively, McConnell meant that Republicans can’t nominate candidates who are so extreme they won’t be able to win a general election. This week, the Pennsylvania gubernatorial and Senate primaries are forcing Republicans to confront this question head on.

In both, controversial candidates have a shot of winning. In the governor’s race, Mastriano, a state lawmaker who’s been subpoenaed by Congress’s January 6 committee, has pulled ahead of the rest of the field. And in the Senate race, Barnette, a commentator who has shared Islamophobic posts, is polling closely alongside candidates like Oz and McCormick.

Contesting the 2020 election results and espousing xenophobic and racist views has become normalized in a segment of the Republican Party, with more than 100 far-right candidates running this year. But it’s not clear that independents and the more moderate Republicans who reliably vote in general elections will accept these sorts of candidates.

Because of that, establishment Republicans fear Mastriano and Barnette could jeopardize the party’s chances of securing those seats in the general election, since Pennsylvania is still a relatively purple state.

“Winning the primary and losing the general because the candidate is unable to get the voters in the middle isn’t a win,” Pennsylvania’s state Senate Republican leader Kim Ward wrote in a Facebook post about Mastriano.

A similar dynamic can be seen in the upcoming Michigan secretary of state and Arizona GOP Senate races. But in North Carolina, GOP fracturing is on display in a different way as state lawmakers try to oust gaffe-ridden Rep. Madison Cawthorn in the 11th Congressional District. Cawthorn, who’s been cited twice for trying to carry a gun onto a plane, faced accusations of insider trading, and been disciplined by party leaders for comments about congressional orgies, is now facing strong opposition from other Republicans. One of North Carolina’s senators, Thom Tillis, is among those who endorsed Cawthorn’s competitor, state Sen. Chuck Edwards. Trump has stood by Cawthorn, however, and argued that he deserves a “second chance.”

Ultimately, these races could indicate which faction of the Republican Party primary voters are more closely aligned with, and offer some clues about the party’s chances of both holding and picking up seats at the state and federal levels. —LZ

Heated contests between different wings of the Democratic party

For Democrats, progressive ideas and progressive candidates are on the ballot yet again after wins for the former and losses for the latter in the Ohio and Indiana primaries. That means Democratic primary voters will again have a chance to send a message about what kind of party they want to be a part of. In Tuesday’s races, they’ll have a choice between competing moderate and progressive visions.

In Oregon, the Democratic primary for governor is a wide-open race, with Tina Kotek, the progressive former speaker of the statehouse, generally seen as holding a slim advantage over a moderate challenger, Oregon Treasurer Tobias Read. Most Democrats are undecided in the race, however, according to polling done by Read’s team.

In the state’s Fifth Congressional District, incumbent Rep. Kurt Schrader, a member of the centrist-minded Problem Solvers Caucus in Congress, faces opposition from the left: Jamie McLeod-Skinner, a former congressional candidate and small business owner, is highlighting in her ads Schrader’s votes against key progressive climate priorities in the failed Build Back Better bill.

Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman has been trouncing his Senate Democratic primary rivals for months, in part by advancing progressive causes without accepting the “progressive” label. On the House side, eyes are on state Rep. Summer Lee, a progressive rising star. She won her statehouse race with the support of local democratic socialists in 2018, and is now running for the open seat in the 12th Congressional District and — if she wins — is seen as a future member of the progressive group of representatives known as the Squad.

In North Carolina’s First Congressional District, voters have a relatively straightforward ideological choice: moderate state Sen. Don Davis, who received an endorsement from retiring Rep. GK Butterfield, against a progressive former state senator, Erica Smith.

But in the state’s solidly Democratic Fourth District, representing Durham and Chapel Hill, there’s a historically expensive primary fight between staunch progressives: presumed frontrunner, state Sen. Valerie Foushee, and her chief rival, Durham County Commissioner Nida Allam. Their main point of disagreement is on the US’s relationship with Israel. Allam has questioned that relationship, which has led to a lot of PAC support for Foushee, making this a nearly $3 million race. —Christian Paz

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