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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Democrats Gradually Improving November Prospects

The defeat of Mark Sanford got most of the headlines on the evening of the June 12 round of primaries. But the broader impact on the general election battlegrounds should be noted, as I observed at New York:

In several places primary voters set up intriguing battles.

Virginia: Here comes the 2018 wave of Democratic women

According to the Cook Political Report, there are four Republican-held House seats in the Old Dominion that are vulnerable to a Democratic takeover. And Democrats have nominated four impressive women to take on this critical challenge.

The most vulnerable seat of all probably belongs to Barbara Comstock, whose suburban/exurban Tenth District in Northern Virginia, which Hillary Clinton carried by nearly ten points in 2016. Last night the national party favorite to take on Comstock, state legislator Jennifer Wexton, won over a large and well-qualified field.

In the central Virginia Seventh District, represented by hard-right representative Dave Brat (famous for upsetting then–Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a 2014 primary), another woman with strong national and elected-official backing, former CIA operative Abigail Spanberger, routed Marine veteran Daniel Ward in what was expected to be a close race. In the Tidewater Second District, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee thinks it has the right challenger to former Navy SEAL and freshmen representative Scott Taylor (a frequent Trump critic who had no trouble in his own primary) in Navy vet and small-business owner Elaine Luria, who easily defeated self-proclaimed progressive Karen Mallard in the primary.

In the west-central Virginia Fifth District, which leans Republicans (Trump carried it easily) but has pockets of Democratic strength, a fourth woman, former journalist and author Leslie Cockburn, had no primary opponent, but is awaiting a local GOP selection process trigged by incumbent representative Thomas Garrett’s sudden announcement two weeks ago that he was struggling with alcoholism and would not run for another term. Cockburn has been a fundraising dynamo.

All four of these Democratic candidates benefited from the early support of EMILY’s List, which is having a really good cycle so far. If 2018 does turn out to be the Year of the Democratic Woman, it could begin in Virginia.

One Virginia Democrat who is breathing much easier today is U.S. senator Tim Kaine, whose GOP opponent will be neo-Confederate Trumpite Corey Stewart. The fiery Stewart, who nearly upset Ed Gillespie in the 2017 gubernatorial primary, had a surprisingly tough time dispatching state legislator Nick Freitas in his primary, but narrowly survived.

Maine: Ranked-choice voting has arrived

Maine has a competitive House race in its rural-dominated Second Congressional District (carried by Trump in 2016 and held by GOP representative Bruce Poliquin), and a governor’s race that could determine whether term-limited wild man Paul LePage’s reactionary policies (including a fight against a voter-mandated Medicaid expansion) continue or end. In both contests the state’s embattled experiment with ranked-choice (a.k.a. “instant runoff”) voting is coming into play. Driven in part by LePage’s two plurality (thanks to independent candidacies) gubernatorial wins, Maine voters mandated adoption of ranked-choice voting (which asks voters to rank all candidates on the ballot and then reallocates last-place votes by secondary preference until someone achieves a majority) in a 2017 ballot initiative. A subsequent court decision limited rank-choiced voting to federal elections and state primaries, but it was fully deployed on June 12.

In the Republican gubernatorial primary heavily funded front-runner Shawn Moody won a clear majority and will avoid any ranked-choice follow-up. In the Democratic primary, though, longtime front-runner and Attorney General Janet Mills only received a third of the vote, and will have to wait for ranked-choice tabulations (which could take as long as a week) to determine if she can hold off second-place finisher Adam Cote (or theoretically, even another candidate, should one of them pile up a huge number of second-choice preferences). The same is true in the Second District Democratic congressional race, where with votes still being counted state legislator Jared Golden has slipped just below a majority, which means second-preference ballots from third-place finisher Craig Olson will determine whether Golden or Burt’s Bees scion and environmentalist Lucas St. Clair will get the nod.

In a separate vote, a “people’s veto” referendum overruled legislation passed by the GOP-controlled state legislature to revoke ranked-choice voting in the future, so it will be available at least for congressional races in November barring future judicial interventions.

Nevada: A huge Senate race ahead

Democrats’ slim but very real hopes of winning back control of the U.S. Senate in November depend heavily on U.S. Representative Jacky Rosen, a freshman congresswoman from southern Nevada and a close ally of former Senator Harry Reid. Rosen easily defeated five opponents in the June 12 primary and will now take on the most vulnerable Republican Senate incumbent who hasn’t decided to retire, Dean Heller, in what should be a close race in closely divided state. Heller tried to carve out an identity as relatively independent of Donald Trump and the Senate GOP leadership early in the Trump administration, but when that began to upset conservatives in Washington and back home, he quickly turned himself around. He ultimately benefited from a Trump intervention to talk conservative gadfly Danny Tarkanian out of a primary challenge, and now has to figure out how to survive a general election.

While Trump’s action was good news for Dean Heller, it could wind up costing Republicans a rare shot at a Democratic-held House seat, Rosen’s Third District. Tarkanian (son of legendary UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian) has lost a string of five straight elections for public office dating back to 2004, the most recent being a loss to Rosen in 2016. Trump’s sort-of endorsement and the fundraising machine he had put together for a Senate run made Tark an instant front-runner, and he won 44 percent against former TV reporter Michelle Mortensen and state legislator Scott Hammond. If history is any indication, Tarkanian may have an uphill fight against Third District Democratic nominee Susie Lee, a philanthropist with her own fundraising chops and strong support from both Rosen and Reid.

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