By Geoffrey Skelley and Nathaniel Rakich – Primary season is winding down. – From sea to shining sea (via purple mountains majesty), today’s primary elections have it all. To have a prayer in November, Alaska Democrats may have to nominate … candidates who are not Democrats. In Florida, three campaigns for Congress have devolved into backbiting and criminal accusations. And in deep-red Wyoming, today’s primary will essentially decide the state’s next U.S. senator. Here’s everything you need to know.
In 2018, Republican Rep. Don Young — the longest-serving member of Congress — won reelection by less than 7 percentage points. Notably, his opponent in that race, businesswoman Alyse Galvin, wasn’t even technically a Democrat. She was an independent who ran for and won the Democratic nomination.
Fresh off a victory in the 2018 election, Republican Rep. Ross Spano of Florida’s 15th Congressional District was riding high — until he was faced with the possibility he violated campaign finance law. In a December 2018 filing with the Federal Election Commission, Spano disclosed that he borrowed $180,000 from two friends and then loaned $167,000 to his own campaign. Since individuals were not allowed to give a candidate more than $2,700 per election in 2018, this could be seen as laundering campaign contributions. The House Ethics Committee launched an investigation, and in November 2019 we learned that the Justice Department had opened a criminal inquiry.
Unsurprisingly, Spano is now facing stiff reelection challenges from both parties. In the Republican primary, Lakeland City Commissioner Scott Franklin has hammered Spano as a “criminal” in ads; Spano insists he didn’t know his actions were illegal and is framing himself as a victim of a partisan witch hunt. For his part, Spano has tried to paint Franklin as insufficiently loyal to President Trump — something that has become par for the course in GOP primaries. Both candidates have also accused the other of not being tough enough on illegal immigration.
While Spano has the support of the party establishment, including most of the Republicans serving Florida in Congress, a few high-profile local conservatives have endorsed Franklin. As of July 29, Spano had outspent Franklin, $824,000 to $483,000, and the incumbent’s allies at the anti-tax Club for Growth also invested more than $270,000. But an upset may nonetheless be brewing: Last week, St. Pete Polls found the two men locked in a virtual tie.
Whoever wins will face either investigative journalist Alan Cohn or state Rep. Adam Hattersley, who are squaring off in an evenly matched Democratic primary of their own. As of July 29, Cohn had spent more than Hattersley ($459,000 to $406,600), but Hattersley had more cash on hand for the final three weeks ($236,000 to $130,000). Although the two don’t differ much on policy, Cohn has dinged Hattersley for being too moderate (he has some endorsements from moderate groups and didn’t register as a Democrat until 2018). Hattersley, though, has appropriated that argument to claim he’s the more electable candidate — which might be persuasive given that Trump carried this central Florida district by 10 points in 2016.
And as the race has heated up, things have gotten nasty. In one ad, Askar stresses that when he was 18, he signed up for the Marines, whereas Donalds was arrested for drug possession at 19 and Eagle got a DUI at 31. He’s also argued that Donalds lied to get a state job and opposed Trump in the past, attacks that got a “Mostly False” rating from PolitiFact. But Askar’s military service and educational background have been called into question, providing plenty of ammunition for his opponents. And outside groups have also dinged Askar for past contributions to Mitt Romney. They’ve also criticized Figlesthaler for giving money to former Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson (who lost in 2018) and not donating to Trump in the 2016 presidential race.
However, because Askar and Figlesthaler are largely self-funding their campaigns, they’ve dramatically outspent Donalds and Eagle. Askar has raised about $3.7 million (with $3 million from personal loans), while Figlesthaler has brought in a little over $2.5 million ($1.9 million self-funded). Conversely, Donalds has collected roughly $1.2 million and Eagle just about $741,000. However, Donalds has far and away the most outside help thanks to his endorsement from the Club for Growth. The group’s campaign arm has spent about $1.4 million boosting Donalds and another $1.1 million hitting the other three candidates (mainly Askar). And Conservative Outsider PAC, another Donalds ally, has also spent $459,000 attacking Eagle.
As the campaign draws to a close, though, it looks like anyone’s race. An early August survey from St. Pete Polls found the four candidates separated by just 6 points, with Donalds attracting 22 percent support, Figlesthaler 21 percent, Eagle 20 percent and Askar 16 percent.
Meanwhile, the 3rd Congressional District in north Florida also has a busy primary to replace retiring Republican Rep. Ted Yoho. The contest lacks a front-runner, but the most prominent contenders appear to be former Yoho staffer Kat Cammack, businessman Judson Sapp and physician James St. George.
The principal drama in the race has centered on Cammack, who has gained notoriety for running fowl-themed ads in which she calls her opponents and D.C. Republicans too “chicken” to stand up for conservative values. She’s played up her connections to Yoho, too, but those ties have recently come under scrutiny. In late June, Yoho’s son claimed Cammack had been fired as his father’s chief of staff and expressed frustration that Cammack made it sound like the congressman backed her. Following his son’s statement, Rep. Yoho stated that Cammack had been demoted to deputy chief of staff and reassigned to the district office in 2013 “for reasons not to be disclosed,” and later reiterated that he wasn’t endorsing anyone.
As for St. George and Sapp, they have also touted their conservative credentials, support for Trump and opposition to the political left. They’ve also brought more financial resources to the race than Cammack. As of July 29, St. George had raised about $922,000 ($600,000 from his own pocket) while Sapp, who won 24 percent in the 2018 primary against Yoho, had collected $770,000 ($500,000 self-funded). By comparison, Cammack had gathered about $492,000 in contributions with very little self-funding. But Cammack has benefited from the only significant outside spending in the race: $300,000 by the Sen. Rand Paul-aligned Protect Freedom PAC. (Paul has endorsed Cammack.)
And the only recent poll we have of the race suggests Cammack might come out on top with a plurality of the vote. Earlier this month, Meer Research found Cammack garnering 25 percent, Sapp 15 percent and St. George 13 percent. However, 20 percent were still undecided and seven other candidates also attracted support. Cammack doesn’t have an overwhelming lead, so it’s entirely possible one of the other contenders might still best her today.
With the retirement of Republican Sen. Mike Enzi, the GOP primary for Wyoming’s Senate seat is also in the cards, and the winner of this election is essentially guaranteed to become the state’s next senator, as Wyoming is arguably the most Republican state in the nation. Admittedly, there’s not much drama here as former Rep. Cynthia Lummis is a pretty clear front-runner despite the fact that there are 10 candidates on the GOP primary ballot.
But we mention this race because Lummis’s likely election could be meaningful for Republican gender diversity in the Senate. At present, just nine of the 26 women in the Senate are Republicans. Six of them are up for election this November, with four in real danger of defeat.1 So if things go poorly for the GOP, Lummis could be important to shoring up gender representation within the party’s caucus.
Things are busiest in Florida today, but there are intriguing reasons to watch what happens in Alaska and Wyoming, too. There aren’t many primary or runoff contests left in 2020, so enjoy primary season while it lasts.