WASHINGTON — The battle for control of Congress will come into sharper focus after Tuesday, when voters across eight states choose nominees in a bevy of hotly contested primaries.
Democrats may have the most riding on Tuesday's results as they seek to nominate strong candidates in as many as 16 competitive House races from New Jersey to California, but they face crowded primaries that, in some cases, have turned nasty and unpredictable.
The California races have soaked up the most attention because of that state's open primary system, in which the top two vote-getters advance regardless of party affiliation. Democrats' fear their oversupply of candidates could result in a splintered electorate, allowing two Republicans to snag the only slots on November's general election ballot.
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Here are three key races to watch on Tuesday outside the Golden State:
In this Midwestern battleground, the most closely watched contest is unfolding in the northeast quadrantof the state, where Democrats believe incumbent GOP Rep. Rod Blum is vulnerable. The conservative GOP lawmaker won re-election by 54 percent in 2016; President Trump carried the district by a slim three percentage points, while former President Obama won here in 2012.
There are four Democrats vying to face Blum in the November election: state Rep. Abby Finkenauer of Dubuque, Thomas Heckroth of Cedar Falls, a former aide to ex-Sen. Tom Harkin; George Ramsey of Marion, a retired U.S. Army first sergeant; and Courtney Rowe of Cedar Rapids, an aerospace engineer.
Finkenauer appears to be the frontrunner in the June 5 primary. She has raised the most money — nearly $1.3 million — and snagged more than a dozen union endorsements. The national organization EMILY's List, which helps elect Democratic women that support abortion access, is backing her. So is the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which has placed her on its "red to blue" list for seats it hopes to flip from Republican to Democrat this fall.
Republicans note that Democrats have targeted this seat before and come up short. And they say Blum should not be underestimated.
He's a "different kind of Republican" with an independent streak that appeals to voters, said Jeff Kaufmann, chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa.
Democrats are targeting five New Jersey districts that sent Republicans to the House in 2016. That's a major switch in strategy from past years, when so-called "safe" districts in the Garden State were ignored. That's because Democrats have made surprising gains with voters in upscale, well-educated suburbs — traditional GOP strongholds across New Jersey.
One top Democratic target: GOP Rep. Leonard Lance, a five-term moderate Republican who voted against the GOP tax cut bill and opposed his party's efforts to repeal Obamacare. Lance represents New Jersey's 7th Congressional District.
The Democratic primary here showcases a dynamic playing out around the country pitting the progressive and establishment wings of the Democratic party against each other.
Peter Jacob, who ran against Lance in 2016, has the support of "Our Revolution" — a group formed by supporters of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the populist 2016 presidential contender. But local Democratic party leaders have backed Tom Malinowski, a former assistant secretary of state in the Obama administration.
The outcome of the primary could determine how competitive this race is come November, with some fearing that Jacob may not be the strongest to face Lance. It could also have implications for the national Democratic Party, as it struggles to chart a new path after its devastating loss in the 2016 presidential race.
In this May 24, 2018 photo Xochitl Torres Small, a Democratic candidate for Congress, speaks to voters at a Las Cruces, N.M., event. Now that Rep. Steve Pearce, R-Hobbs, is stepping down to run for New Mexico governor, eyes are turning to southern New Mexico where the open congressional seat that in recent years has leaned Republican could determine which party controls the U.S. House of Representatives. (Photo: Russell Contreras, AP)
At first blush, New Mexico's 2nd Congressional District would not seem like a good investment for Democrats. Incumbent GOP Rep. Steve Pearce won a 7th term with 63 percent of the vote in 2016, and President Trump carried this sprawling, mostly rural seat by 10 percentage points.
But Pearce is leaving Congress to run for governor, and Democrats think they have a star-in-the-making in their leading contender: Xochitl Torres Small, an attorney who specializes in water rights issues and worked as a former district staffer for Democratic Sen. Tom Udall.
Small is a first-time candidate with an up-from-the-bootstraps story; the daughter of a teacher and a social worker, she worked her way through college and graduated with honors from Georgetown University.
Meanwhile, four Republicans are vying for the GOP nomination in a race that has turned nasty ahead of Tuesday's voting.
The two leading contenders seem to be competing for the most conservative mantle: Monty Newman, a former mayor and state party chairman, has been endorsed by Tea Party darling and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, while state Rep. Yvette Herrell has tried to align herself with Trump's hardline immigration agenda. She has even gone further than the president in calling for the deportation of DREAMers, undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children.
Contributing: Herb Jackson, William Petroski, and the staff of the Las Cruces Sun News.