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Big day of primaries points to a nail-biter in the fall

Instead of a "blue wave," Tuesday’s primaries presented a picture of competing crosscurrents: Republicans buoyed by positive economic news, while Democrats seem to have greater enthusiasm on their side.

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Republican gubernatorial candidate John Cox speaks at his election night headquarters after placing second in the primary in San Diego, Calif. June 5.

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After the biggest primary day of the US midterm election season, both parties have reason to be hopeful. But barring some game-changing development, control of Congress is shaping up to be a cliffhanger.

Heading into Tuesday’s eight primaries, including in all-important California, momentum appeared to be shifting slightly in favor of Republicans, bolstered by a strong economy and President Trump’s messaging.

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Those influences were clearly a force at the ballot box. In California, for instance, Republican businessman John Cox advanced to face liberal frontrunner Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom in the race for governor in the fall. That was not a given in this heavily Democratic state, which promotes the top two primary vote-getters, regardless of party.

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The president’s endorsement of Mr. Cox, who pumped $5 million of his own money into his campaign, apparently helped bring out voters. Now that Cox will be on the November ballot, that could help boost Republican turnout for endangered House seats in the general election. It also spared Republicans from the spectacle of an all-Democratic general election for governor in the country’s most populous state. The strong performance of GOP Rep. David Valadao, in a California district that Hillary Clinton won by 15 points, also buoyed Republicans.

But Tuesday was a good day for Democrats, too. In California, they had worried about being shut out of key House races. It looks like that didn’t happen (though final results could be days away). Democratic voters’ determination to “resist” Mr. Trump and retake the House was evident particularly in New Jersey, where voters backed all three candidates favored by the national party, including a pro-gun, conservative Democrat, Jeff Van Drew.

“Democrats had a good night,” says Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, which handicaps elections at the University of Virginia. But “I’m still at 50-50,” he says, about whether a “blue wave” will hand Democrats the House in November. “Showing any sense of certainty about which way the House is going to go is premature.”

Open seats and enthusiasm

One thing Democrats have going for them is a massive number of open seats – 60 districts with no incumbent running. Some of those are in California and New Jersey, where Democrats hope to flip a total of 10 seats. If they succeed, that would cover a lot of ground on the road to the 23 seats they need to win back the House.

Another thing Democrats have going for them is enthusiasm.

“I am bullish about our chances in November,” Rep. Steny Hoyer (D) of Maryland, the No. 2 in the House Democratic leadership, told reporters Tuesday. “All over the country I know there’s great enthusiasm, there’s great optimism, there’s great energy.”

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Sacramento voter Dan Janos, a professor of film production at California State University, Sacramento, biked to a vote center near his home to drop off his completed ballot Tuesday afternoon. The longtime Democrat was less concerned with any particular race or issue than the looming presence of Trump.

“It’s more important to vote than ever because we’re so incredibly divided,” said Mr. Janos, who lived in San Francisco during Lieutenant Governor Newsom’s time as mayor there and voted for him Tuesday. “Maybe 2016 will be the motivation for people to get out and vote instead of sitting back and watching.”

But turnout in California, though it exceeded the 2014 primaries, was lower than Democrats had hoped.

David Mermin, a Democratic pollster based in Berkeley, predicts that the relative clarity of the general election will draw more voters to the polls in November. Tuesday’s primary was a noisy, confusing affair with a very crowded field of Democratic candidates to choose from – a crowding that caused party leaders to worry they might split their vote and not make it into the first or second spot in targeted districts. 

“The ‘top two’ primary is strange. It’s not about issues; it’s about who’s spending money to take out other candidates,” Mr. Mermin says. “The energy and anger over Trump didn’t necessarily translate as we thought it might, but that doesn’t portend it won’t happen in November.” 

Other Democratic strategists are more concerned about November.

“I’m worried,” writes Democratic pollster Celinda Lake in an email. “We need an economic message.”

It's the economy, stupid

Indeed, economic indicators appear to be putting a wind at Republicans’ backs. The jobless rate in May dropped to 3.8 percent, the lowest since April 2000. For the first time since record-keeping began, there are more job openings than Americans looking for work, reports The Wall Street Journal.

The number of Americans who say the country is on the “right track” has increased to 39 percent, according to the Real Clear Politics average. Meanwhile, the president’s job-approval rating, after hitting an average low of 37 percent in December, has climbed up to 44 percent.

To bring home their economic message, Republicans are touting their new tax-cut law, attributing to it not only middle-class tax relief, but also wage increases and job growth. But while the overall news is positive, not all voters are feeling it yet, cautions Republican pollster David Winston.

Mr. Winston’s surveys show that more than half the country says it is living “paycheck-to-paycheck” and a third of the country is $400 away from a major financial crisis. “People are treading water, they’re exhausted, they’re looking to break out of this cycle, so economic news matters.”

Voters need to feel an improved economic situation in their own lives, not just hear about it in the news, he says. Right now, they’re just beginning to assess their own situation, including the effect of the tax cut. “Is economic change being delivered? If yes, that’s good for Republicans. If no, that’s really challenging.”

Americans may be feeling more hopeful about the future, and even experiencing wage growth, but other costs – like gasoline and healthcare – are increasing, points out longtime congressional observer Norman Ornstein, of the American Enterprise Institute. “At best, they’re on a treadmill.”

Given this landscape, Trump’s role in ginning up his base – particularly white, male voters – is an important factor, Mr. Ornstein adds. “Trump’s direct effort to rile up that base, and make it about him, ‘You can’t let those evil people win,’ that could limit the damage for Republicans.”

The Alabama primary on Tuesday shows just how much Trump has come to dominate his party. Instead of easily cruising to victory in a deep red state, Republican incumbent Rep. Martha Roby will be heading to a July run-off against an ex-Democrat, former Rep. Bobby Bright. One of the biggest issues in the primary was loyalty to Trump. The congresswoman had vowed not to vote for Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign after the infamous Access Hollywood tape surfaced, urging him instead to drop out.

Tuesday’s primaries also sorted out a few key questions in the Senate: Longtime Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California is likely safe in her seat, having crushed her competitors – including from the liberal left. But the luster has faded from two-term New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, who, after surviving a corruption trial last year, garnered a lackluster 62 percent of the vote against a challenger with no name recognition or reported funds. And Montana’s Republican state auditor Matthew Rosendale will challenge endangered Democrat Sen. Jon Tester in that red state.

Trump has been vowing to defeat Senator Tester for leading the charge against his failed Veterans Affairs nominee.