Wide open race for governor featured in Georgia; legislative races take center stage in Kentucky
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
ATLANTA (CFP) — Voters in four Southern states will decide primary contests on Tuesday, with a wide-open race for Georgia’s governorship topping the list of closely watched contests.
Georgia, Arkansas and Kentucky are holding primaries, while in Texas, runoffs will be held for 15 U.S. House seats that were not decided in the initial round of voting back in March, including four targeted by Democrats as pickup opportunities.
In Georgia, all eyes are on the race to succeed term-limited Republican Governor Nathan Deal, with competitive races among both Republicans and Democrats. In Kentucky, much of the attention will be on races for the state legislature, in the wake of teacher protests that have battered GOP Governor Matt Bevin’s popularity. And in Arkansas, the hottest race is a Supreme Court contest in which the incumbent sued an outside conservative group for defamation over controversial TV ads.
In Georgia, seven Republicans are running for governor, including Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle from Gainesville and Secretary of State Brian Kemp from Athens, who pre-election polls indicate will likely face off in a July 24 runoff. Their departures have also created wide-open races for the GOP nominations for lieutenant governor and secretary of state, where runoffs are also expected.
But it is the Democratic race for governor that is drawing national attention with the candidacy of former State House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams from Atlanta, who is trying to become the first African American women ever elected as governor of a U.S. state. Pre-election polls showed Abrams with a wide lead over former State Rep. Stacey Evans from Smyrna, although a large number of voters were still undecided.
In the Democratic race for secretary of state, former U.S. Rep. John Barrow, who lost his seat in 2014, is trying to make a political comeback against three challengers
Among U.S. House races in the Peach State, most of the attention is on the 6th and 7th districts, where Republican incumbents are seen as possibly vulnerable in districts that President Donald Trump won by a narrow margin in 2016.
In the 6th District, in Atlanta’s northern suburbs, four Democrats are vying to take on U.S. Rep. Karen Handel, who won her seat in 2017 after a hard-fought and hugely expensive special election against Democrat Jon Ossoff. Handel’s chances of keeping the seat — in a district Trump only carried by just 1.5 points — improved when Ossoff decided against a rematch.
In the 7th District, in northwest metro Atlanta, six Democrats are competing to take on U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall. While Woodall took 60 percent of the vote in 2016, Trump only won by 6 points, putting the seat within the realm of possibility for Democrats.
In Kentucky, with no statewide races on the ballot, much of the focus has been on state legislative seats, where Democrats are hoping Bevin’s role in a fight over teacher pensions, which led to statewide protests by teachers, might translate into progress at the ballot box.
The standoff over pensions, which ended when the Republican-controlled legislature approved controversial changes after overriding Bevin’s vetoes, has roiled the Bluegrass State for months, particularly Bevin’s assertion that teacher protests might have led to abuse of children after schools had to be closed when teachers didn’t show up for work.
Bevin, who isn’t up for re-election until 2019, later apologized, but a poll from Western Kentucky University’s Social Science Research Center showed that disapproval of Bevin’s job performance spiked to 60 percent after those remarks.
While the GOP has controlled the Kentucky Senate since 2000, Democrats held the House until 2016, when Republicans finally took control for the first time in 95 years. The Kentucky House was the last legislative chamber anywhere in the South controlled by Democrats.
Republicans hold a 63 to 37 advantage in the House, which means Democrats will have to flip 14 seats to take control. While that is a tall order, those numbers are very similar to the situation in neighboring Virginia, where Democrats flipped 15 seats to come within one seat of winning control in2017
In the 6th District, which includes Lexington and Frankfort, Lexington Mayor Jim Gray and State Senator Reggie Thomas, also from Lexington, are among a field of six Democrats vying to take on GOP U.S. Rep. Andy Barr in November. As Kentucky does not have runoffs, the top vote-getter Tuesday will face Barr in November.
Gray was the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate in 2016, losing by 14 points to Republican US. Senator Rand Paul. However, in that race he carried Fayette County, the most populous in the 6th District.
In the neighboring 3rd District, which takes in metro Louisville, Republicans are making a play for the seat held by U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, an unabashed liberal who has introduced articles of impeachment against Trump. Vickie Glisson, a Louisville attorney who headed the state health department in the Bevin administration, is favored over two Republican primary challengers.
In Arkansas, six state executive offices, including governor, are up in 2018. However, Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson faces only token opposition in the primary, with two little-known Democrats vying to take him on in November. The only race with a competitive GOP primary is for secretary of state, where incumbent Republican Mark Martin is term-limited.
Among the Natural State’s four U.S. House seats, the race drawing the most attention is the 2nd District in metro Little Rock, where Democrats believe they might have a shot at ousting GOP U.S. Rep. French Hill if a national Democratic wave develops. Four Democrats are vying for the nomination to replace him, a field that includes State Rep. Clarke Tucker of Little Rock.
While Hill won re-election by 11 points in 2016, the 2nd District is the least Republican district in the state, anchored by Pulaski County, which Hillary Clinton carried in 2016. Trump won the district by less than 10 points.
The most contentious race in Arkansas is a non-partisan battle for a seat on the Arkansas Supreme Court, where incumbent Justice Courtney Hudson Goodson is being challenged by Court of Appeals Judge Ken Hixson and David Sterling, who was appointed by Hutchinson as chief counsel for the Arkansas Department of Human Services.
A week before the election, Goodson filed a defamation lawsuit against the Judicial Crisis Network, a Washington-based conservative legal group, over ads it was running against her on Arkansas TV stations which alleged she accepted gifts for donors and sought a pay raise. She also asked judges in three jurisdictions to enjoin stations from airing the ads, triggering protests from media organizations, although some of them voluntarily agreed to stop running the ads.
The JCN ads have targeted both Goodson and Hixson, although Hixson has so far not brought any legal action. Sterling has insisted that he has no connection to the group. JCN spent more than $500,000 in 2016 to defeat Goodson in a race for chief justice.
If none of the candidates captures a majority on Tuesday, the top two vote-getters will face off during the general election in November, which would drag out the contentious race for five more months.
In Texas, Democrats will pick nominees in four targeted U.S. House seats now in Republican hands that Democrats have hopes of flipping in the fall:
- In the 7th District, in metro Houston, attorney Lizzie Pannill Fletcher will face off against liberal activist Laura Moser for the right to take on Republican U.S. John Culberson, in a district Hillary Clinton carried in 2016.
- In the 21st District, which stretches from Austin to San Antonio and takes in part of the Texas Hill Country, Republicans Matt McCall and Chip Roy will face each other in the runoff, while the Democratic primary will be between Joseph Kosper and Mary Wilson. The seat is now held by retiring U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith; Trump carried it by 10 points.
- In the 23rd District, the largest Texas district geographically which sprawls from the suburbs of San Antonio to near El Paso, Democrats Gina Ortiz Jones and Rick Trevino are vying for the right to take on incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Will Hurd in November. Clinton also carried this majority-Latino swing district, which has changed hands four times in the last 12 years.
- In the 32nd District, in metro Dallas, the Democratic runoff is between former NFL player Colin Allred and businesswoman Lillian Salerno. The winner will face Republican U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, who is trying to keep a traditionally Republican seat in a district that Clinton also carried.
Also in Texas, the fields will be set in four other open GOP-held districts that Republicans will be favored to keep in November:
- In the 2nd District, a metro Houston seat given up by retiring U.S. Rep. Ted Poe, the Republican runoff will be between David Crenshaw, a retired Navy officer, and State Rep. Kevin Roberts. The winner will face Democrat Todd Litton.
- In the 5th District, an East Texas seat now held by U.S. Rep. Jeb Hensarling, the Republican runoff features State Rep. Lance Gooden against Bunni Pounds, a political consultant who has been endorsed by Hensarling. The winner faces former Terrell City Councilman Dan Wood.
- In the 6th District, a seat in metro Fort Worth now held by U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, the GOP runoff is between Tarrant County Tax Assessor Ron Wright and Jake Ellzey, a former Navy fighter pilot. Democrats will choose between Jana Lynne Sanchez, a communications consultant from Waxahachie, and Ruby Faye Woolridge, an Arlington pastor who was the Democratic nominee for the seat in 2016.
- In the 27th District, a Corpus Christi-area seat that opened up after Republican U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold resigned in April, Republicans Bech Brun and Michael Cloud will face each other in the runoff, while the Democratic runoff is between Roy Barrera and Eric Holguin. Candidates in this race are running simultaneously in the regular primary and a special election to fill the remainder of Farenthold’s term.
Barton decided not to seek re-election after after a nude selfie he had exchanged with a woman with whom he was having a consensual extramarital relationship wound up on social media.
Farenthold resigned after news reports that $84,000 in taxpayer dollars had been used to pay a settlement to a former female staffer who alleged that she suffered sexual harassment from Farenthold and another male staffer. The congressman denied the harassment allegations, while conceding that a lax management style in his Washington office created a “decidedly unprofessional” work environment.