Montana, California, New Mexico: Western primaries offer bellwether for midterms

(Courthouse News Service) Voters will head to the polls in three western states on Tuesday, poised to make decisions that may be the first major test of whether the oft-predicted “blue wave” will materialize in November.

California, Montana and New Mexico are among the eight states hosting primary elections on June 5, asking voters to whittle large fields of candidates vying to represent their respective political parties in statewide gubernatorial races and national offices.

But for California, it’s a bit different.

California instituted a top-two or “jungle primary” system in 2011, allowing the top two vote-getting candidates, regardless of party, to advance to the general election in November.

While pundits continue to emphasize the vulnerability of all Republicans in the Golden State, where President Donald Trump remains deeply unpopular, the glut of Democratic candidates in historically Republican districts could dilute votes and pave the way for Republicans to advance to the general election.

Take California’s 49th Congressional District, which spans the coastal area of northern San Diego County to southern Orange County — and has functioned historically as a stronghold for the GOP in California.

That stronghold has shown recent vulnerabilities as Republicans throughout the Golden State continue to lose ground. President Donald Trump lost the district by 7 percent in 2016 and U.S. Representative Darrell Issa barely prevailed by 1 percent the same year, stoking Democratic optimism that they could leverage anti-Trump sentiment and pick up the House seat.

Issa has since announced he will step aside, and a slate of Democratic candidates have stepped up to fill the void.

California Assemblyman Rocky Chavez, the front-running Republican candidate vying to replace Issa, continues to enjoy a comfortable lead in the polls, appearing to be a shoe-in for the general in November.

Meanwhile, the four Democratic candidates are cannibalizing each other, igniting fears that none will advance, or that the one who does will emerge considerably weakened.

While Doug Applegate, a lawyer, has pulled ahead among the four Democrats, the party has expressed concern that the three other Democrats — Paul Kerr, Sarah Jacobs and Mike Levin — could siphon off enough votes to pave the way for Diane Harkey – the Republican running just behind Chavez —to sneak into the general election.

This would leave voters with a choice between two Republicans, preventing the blue wave that many expect to originate in California from cresting.

This nightmare scenario for Democrats — two Republicans making the runoff in contests for the House — isn’t relegated to the 49th Congressional District alone. Republican Representative Ed Royce recently vacated the 39th Congressional District, which covers northern Orange County and eastern Los Angeles, leaving it to face similar challenges.

Furthermore, incumbent Republican Representatives Dana Rohrabacher of Orange County, Jeff Denham from the Central Valley, Mimi Walters of Inland Orange County and Duncan Hunter of San Diego, while also viewed as vulnerable, stand to benefit from a crowded field of Democratic challengers fighting amongst themselves.

“It’s definitely been a disruptive force in California politics, and we’re just learning about some of the pros and cons,” Mark Baldasarre, president of the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California, told the Associated Press in reference to the new primary system.

Nationwide, Democrats need to pick up 24 seats in November to take back control of the House.

Several policy experts count about 80 Congressional districts throughout the nation that could be competitive, so California’s participation in the blue wave come November will not make or break its prospects.

However, what was once considered an almost certain pick-up of House seats in a deeply “blue state” has become less assured.

California voters will also whittle the gubernatorial field on Tuesday, with most polls putting former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, firmly in the lead.

The race for second-place and the right to advance to the runoff has narrowed, with Republican John Cox, a businessman from Southern California, showing recent momentum.

Additional Democratic candidates Antonio Villaraigosa, former mayor of Los Angeles, and John Chiang, the California State Treasurer, are hoping to make advancements over the weekend in their bid to lead the Golden State as well.

In the California Senate race, incumbent Dianne Feinstein holds a wide lead over challenger Kevin de Leon, both Democrats.

New Mexico and Montana, which adhere to more traditional primary processes, are also in the thick of important statewide races and similarly large fields of candidates vying to represent their respective parties.

New Mexico’s primary elections for two open congressional seats and the state’s governor and lieutenant governor are especially fierce.

Sitting Republican Governor Susana Martinez is barred from running for a third term. While U.S. Representative Steve Pearce is running unopposed for the Republican nomination, the Democratic nomination is a three-way race among U.S. Representative Michelle Lujan Grisham, state Senator Joseph Cervantes, and former media executive Jeff Apodaca, son of former New Mexico Governor Jerry Apodaca.

New Mexico’s next governor will take part in the state’s redistricting process following the 2020 Census.

On Tuesday, Montana voters will select the final slate of candidates in this November’s U.S. House and U.S. Senate races.

The open Albuquerque-based congressional seat may be even more hotly contested, with Democratic candidates that include former U.S. Attorney Damon Martinez, law professor Antoinette Sedillo Lopez and former party chair Debra Haaland. Attracting unprecedented amounts of out-of-state money, the race has been framed as a competition between a veteran, a Latina, and a Native American woman. Janice Arnold-Jones, a former state representative, is the only Republican running for the seat.

In southern New Mexico, Republican candidates are locked in a four-way fight for gubernatorial candidate Steve Pearce’s U.S. House seat, with state Representative Yvette Herrell, former state GOP chairman Monty Newman, former Department of the Interior official Gavin Clarkson, and marketing executive Clayburn Griffin all vying for the seat. College instructor Madeline Hildebrandt and attorney Xochitl Torres Small battle for the Democratic nomination.

In Montana, 14 challengers are lining up to unseat incumbents in the June 5 primary for the state’s national House and Senate seats.

Four Republicans – businessman Troy Downing, retired state judge Russ Fagg, State Auditor Matt Rosendale, and state Senator Al Olszewski – are challenging Democrat Jon Tester for the U.S. Senate seat  he has held since 2006. Green Party candidates Steve Kelly and Timothy Adams and Libertarian candidate Rick Brekenridge have also thrown their hats into the ring for the seat.

The reverse scenario is playing out for Montana’s U.S. House seat, where five Democrats – John Heenan, Grant Kier, John Meyer, Jared Pettinato, and Kathleen Williams duke it out for Republican incumbent Greg Gianforte’s seat, which he has held only since a special election in 2017. Green Party candidate Doug Campbell and Libertarian Elinor Swanson are also eyeing the seat.