Election 2018News

Tuesday primaries: Wisconsin, Minnesota voters pick nominees in key contests

Author: The Washington Post - August 14, 2018 - Updated: August 30, 2018

Leah Vukmir and Kevin Nicholson debate in Milwaukee on July 26, 2018. (Tyger Williams/AP)

Two major Midwest swing states will pick their nominees for the midterm elections Tuesday, as will two deep blue states where Republicans like their chances at electing or reelecting center-right governors.


Democrats control every statewide office in Minnesota — a rarity in the Midwest. Two of those offices, though, are being targeted by Republicans, with late-breaking scandals that could affect today’s primaries.

The Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party’s race for governor has come down to three candidates, with party-endorsed legislator Erin Murphy trailing in polls. Rep. Tim Walz, who has argued that his experience winning a swing seat makes him electable statewide, has scooped up most labor union and newspaper endorsements.

But in polls, the front-runner has been Lori Swanson, the state’s longtime attorney general, who jumped into the race late and has been dogged by scandals. First, her running mate, Rep. Rick Nolan, was found to have given a campaign role to a staffer who had left his congressional office amid sexual harassment allegations. Next, the Intercept published stories detailing how Swanson had pressured staffers to work on her campaigns.

The Democratic primary for Swanson’s job has also been roiled by accusations. Rep. Keith Ellison, who jumped into the primary after Swanson lost at the party convention, was accused Saturday of abusing an ex-girlfriend, accusations he denied. The accuser claimed to have a tape of physical abuse but did not produce it. Democrats have remained mostly silent. Ellison was seen as the front-runner in a weak field, which includes party-endorsed attorney Matt Pelikan and state legislator Debra Hilstrom.

The primary for the Senate seat vacated last year by Al Franken has been quieter. Sen. Tina Smith (D), who was appointed to replace Franken, has built a large money and polling lead over Richard Painter, a former ethics lawyer in George W. Bush’s White House who has become a Trump-era presence on cable TV. The Republican primary for governor has found former governor Tim Pawlenty and 2014 candidate Jeff Johnson accusing each other of being unfaithful to Trump, but Pawlenty is the heavy favorite.

There are also busy primaries in three House seats opened up by politicians seeking other offices. In Walz’s 1st District, three-time GOP candidate Jim Hagedorn is working to defeat state Sen. Carla Nelson; Democrat Dan Feehan has largely sewn up his party’s nomination.

There is a real Democratic race in the 5th District, which covers Minneapolis, and where state legislator Ilhan Omar could become the second Muslim woman in Congress. She has been endorsed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and a number of national liberal groups — but there has been no local coronation. Patricia Torres Ray, the first Latina legislator elected in the state, has accused Omar of lacking experience, as has Margaret Anderson Kelliher, a former state House speaker.

Whoever wins the Democratic nomination in Minneapolis probably will head to Congress. Democrats are more nervous in the 8th District, where Republican nominee Pete Stauber has piled up campaign funds while former state legislator Joe Radinovich, state legislator Jason Metsa and three other candidates are seeking to represent an area that swung strongly to President Trump in 2016.


At one point, 15 Democrats were running to challenge Republican Gov. Scott Walker in his bid for a third term. The number on Tuesday’s ballot is down to eight, and Tony Evers, the elected state superintendent of education, has led by double digits in most polls. Two younger Democrats — firefighter union leader Mahlon Mitchell and former state legislator Kelda Roys — have earned more national attention but struggled to break out as he dominated TV airwaves.

Republicans, who have mocked the disorderly Democratic race, will settle a brawl of their own in the primary for U.S. Senate. Leah Vukmir, a state legislator and Walker ally, has earned the state GOP’s endorsement; Kevin Nicholson, a former Democrat and veteran whose ads urge voters to “send a Marine” to Congress, has benefited from more than $10 million in ads paid for by the Club for Growth and megadonor Richard Uihlein.

The primary has drained both candidates’ finances, and the winner will face Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D), who has more than $7 million to spend and has been on the air for months.

Democrats have a draining primary of their own in the 1st Congressional District, a slice of southeastern Wisconsin that is being vacated by House Speaker Paul D. Ryan. The Republican primary is crowded but not competitive, with Ryan-endorsed attorney Bryan Steil favored to defeat a crowd that includes Paul Nehlen, who describes himself as “pro-white” and lost to Ryan in 2016. The Democratic primary is one of the country’s bitterest. Randy “Ironstache” Bryce, a labor activist who piled up money and endorsements with viral ads, was long expected to lock up the nomination. Cathy Myers, a school board member, has argued that the endorsers made a mistake by not vetting Bryce, who has previously struggled to pay child support and has been arrested for driving under the influence as well as driving with a suspended license.

“I, too, am not perfect, but I have not been arrested nine times,” Myers said at a recent debate. Bryce and his supporters bristled at the attack, pointing out that two of Bryce’s arrests had come for his participation in civil disobedience.


Gov. Phil Scott, the only Republican holding statewide office, is a strong favorite for reelection, after a first term where he often cut deals with Democrats. He faces a token conservative challenger; Democrats will decide a five-way primary where Christine Hallquist, the former chief executive of an energy co-op, has gotten the most attention. If nominated, Hallquist would be the first transgender nominee for governor in any state.

“I recognize the historic significance, but that’s not really a thought,” Hallquist told The Washington Post last week.

Republicans, who have not won a federal race in Vermont in 18 years, are not seriously contesting most of this year’s elections. The four candidates vying for the Republican nomination to challenge Sen. Bernie Sanders (I), included Rocky de la Fuente, a California businessman who is running quixotic campaigns across the country, and H. Brooke Paige, a businessman also seeking the party’s nomination for treasurer, secretary of state, auditor, attorney general, and the state’s sole seat in the House of Representatives.


Republicans, who lost two close races to Gov. Dannel Malloy (D), are hoping to replace him by running against the state’s high taxes and deficits. Five men are battling for the party’s gubernatorial nomination, most of them running as outsiders who never have held office. But the only polling on the race has found Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, who ran for the nomination in 2014, ahead of the pack.

Democrats, nervous about November, have a two-way race that started bitterly and is ending the same way. Ned Lamont, an activist and businessman who won the party’s 2006 Senate nomination over then-Sen. Joe Lieberman, secured the Democratic endorsement at its May convention.

But Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim, who served seven years in prison on corruption charges, spent the summer barnstorming the state, attacking Lamont’s wealth and accusing the party of unfairly directing resources toward the front-runner. In the race’s final hours, he threatened to file an ethics complaint.

The race for the state’s 5th Congressional District, which is being vacated by Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D), is competitive but less nasty. When Esty announced her retirement in the wake of a staffer scandal, Democrats recruited Mary Glassman, a former candidate for lieutenant governor. Jahana Hayes, the 2016 Teacher of the Year, jumped into the race shortly after and nearly upset Glassman at the state convention.

Since then, Hayes has jumped ahead of Glassman in fundraising and earned national attention; the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which rarely endorses in Democratic primaries, jumped in to back Glassman. If nominated and elected, Hayes would be the first black Democrat to represent any part of New England in Congress; Republicans, who looked closely at the race initially, will pick one of four underfunded candidates.

Kayla Epstein contributed to this story.

The Washington Post