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Updated at 11:32 p.m. ET
Voters went to the polls Tuesday in eight states — California, Mississippi, Alabama, New Jersey, New Mexico, Iowa, Montana and South Dakota — in the biggest primary day of 2018 to pick nominees for Senate seats, governor, and several key congressional races that could decide control of the House of Representatives this fall.
Democrats see their path to the House majority running through the two dozen districts that sent a Republican to Congress in 2016 but voted for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. Seven of these districts are in California, with the highest concentration in the traditional Republican outpost of Orange County.
Sensing a Democratic surge, Republican incumbents Ed Royce and Darrell Issa retired, raising Democratic hopes even higher in those races.
“Top two” drama
But Democrats may have gotten too excited about these pickup opportunities for their own good.
Many of these Southern California districts are crowded with Democratic candidates. In California’s unusual top-two primary system, all of these Democrats and Republicans are competing on the same ballot. The top two vote getters advance to November, regardless of party affiliation. Democratic leaders are worried the large Democratic fields will spread out their party’s votes, allowing two Republicans to advance in some of these races and taking away what should be competitive fall campaigns.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and other national groups have spent millions of dollars trying to stave off a November shutout in the 39th, 48th and 49th congressional districts.
There was good news for national Democrats out of New Jersey, though, another important state where the party is targeting at least three seats. All of the candidates the DCCC had endorsed won their nominations, including state Sen. Jeff Van Drew in the 2nd District, where GOP Rep. Frank LoBiondo is retiring, as well as former Navy pilot Mikie Sherrill in the 11th District, where House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen isn’t running for re-election. Those races are two of the best pickup opportunities for Democrats in the country.
New Jersey Assistant Secretary of State Tom Malinowski, another DCCC-backed candidate, won the Democratic nomination in the 7th District to take on GOP Rep. Leonard Lance, who is running for re-election in a district Clinton carried by about 1 point.
While Democrats are sweating out this nightmare scenario on the local level in California, Republicans have their own top-two fears in statewide races. A crowded field is running to replace term-limited Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein is running for another term. In both of these marquee races, there is a realistic possibility that Democrats’ substantial statewide voter registration edge over the GOP will lead to Democrat vs. Democrat ballots.
While Republicans would be likely to have a hard time winning either the governorship or a Senate seat this fall, party leaders are worried all-Democratic ballots would depress GOP turnout, hurting more competitive down-ballot races.
Governors’ mansions up for grabs
A crowded — very crowded — field is vying to replace Democrat Jerry Brown, who is wrapping up his second eight-year stint as California’s governor. Current Lt. Gov. and former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom has led in most polls. Republican businessman John Cox and Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa, the former mayor of Los Angeles, appear to be fighting for the second spot on the fall ballot, along with many other candidates.
In Iowa, businessman Fred Hubbell won the Democratic nomination to take on Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds. Iowa Democrats have seen their power and relevance wane in recent years and are hoping to claw their way back into power in 2018. The Democratic primary saw a major last-minute plot twist, when state Sen. Nate Boulton suspended his campaign after several women accused him of sexual misconduct. But the party got good news when Hubbell, who has put about $3 million of his own money into the campaign, won enough votes to avoid a messy and costly convention fight.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, who succeeded Gov. Robert Bentley after he resigned, easily survived a challenge from several Republican challengers and won the nomination without a runoff. The GOP primary took a nasty and personal turn when another candidate raised unfounded rumors about Ivey’s personal life, which she aggressively denied. In November, she will face Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox, who won the Democratic nomination outright.
California Sen. Dianne Feinstein is one of the few moderate Democrats up for re-election this year to face a serious primary challenge from the left. Former state Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon argues Feinstein isn’t doing enough to oppose the Trump administration. Feinstein has responded to the challenge by tacking to the left and led de Leon in most polls. Early returns showed Feinstein well ahead of the pack.
New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez survived a primary challenge, but he took only 60 percent of the vote over Lisa McCormick — who didn’t even raise enough money to file with the Federal Election Commission. This was the first time he was on the ballot after a lengthy corruption trial, which ended in a hung jury. In November, Menendez will face former pharmaceutical executive Bob Hugin, who won the GOP Senate nomination.
In Montana, Republicans are picking their nominee to face Democrat Jon Tester in November. President Trump has made Tester a top target, after the Democrat played a key role in tanking Trump nominee for secretary of veterans affairs Ronny Jackson. State Auditor Matt Rosendale and former Judge Russ Fagg are the top contenders for the GOP nomination.
Will more GOP House members struggle?
In Alabama, Rep. Martha Roby could be on her way to becoming the second House incumbent to lose a primary this year — but she won’t know until July. Roby got only 38 percent of the vote in her primary and was forced into a runoff next month against former Democratic Rep. Bobby Bright — now running as a Republican and Trump loyalist.
Roby came under fire from conservatives after she said she wouldn’t vote for Trump following the release of the Access Hollywood video in October 2016, in which Trump made vulgar comments about women.
National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Steve Stivers said in a statement Tuesday night that the committee will “continue to stand behind her and are confident she’ll emerge victorious in the coming runoff.”
Meanwhile, South Dakota Rep. Kristi Noem could be the latest member of Congress to struggle this cycle in a bid for statewide office. She is seeking the GOP nomination for governor against Attorney General Marty Jackley, who has tried to tar her as part of the D.C. establishment. Other Republican House incumbents have underperformed in their races so far this year, and Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador lost his primary bid for governor. How Noem performs could show whether even being part of Congress is a kiss of death with GOP primary voters.