8 primaries to watch in Ohio, Illinois and California

The GOP primary for Ohio Senate will have big implications for November.

March 18, 2024, 2:07 PM

In 2022, Republicans had a good shot at winning control of the U.S. Senate, but they frittered it away in part by nominating flawed, dogmatic candidates. In 2024, the GOP once again has a great chance to flip the Senate — if they pick their nominees wisely this time.

On Tuesday, Republican primary voters face their first such test as they head to the polls in Ohio to nominate a Senate candidate. Meanwhile, two U.S. representatives in Illinois are facing serious primary challengers, and just two weeks after the California primary, we get a bonus election in the Golden State. Here is everything you need to know about the primary elections happening on March 19.


Races to watch: Senate; 2nd, 6th, 9th and 13th congressional districts
Polls close: 7:30 p.m. Eastern

Republicans need to flip two seats in order to take control of the U.S. Senate in 2025 (or just one if they also win the vice presidency), and there are two Democrats running for reelection in states that former President Donald Trump carried in 2020 (and is likely to carry again in 2024). One is Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, who will face one of three Republicans in the fall.

Secretary of State Frank LaRose led the GOP primary for much of last year, likely helped by the fact that he’s the only statewide elected official in the race. But he has struggled to find an ideological home: Temperamentally, he’s not a natural fit for the MAGA crowd, having criticized Trump for his racist tweets and acknowledged the legitimacy of the 2020 election. But recently he has veered to the right, raising concerns about voter fraud and working hard to defeat a pro-abortion-rights ballot measure in Ohio last year (which passed anyway).

Perhaps worse for him, LaRose has failed to keep pace financially with his two wealthy opponents, each of whom more clearly appeals to one wing of the GOP. As of Feb. 28, state Sen. Matt Dolan — whose family owns the Cleveland Guardians baseball team — had loaned his own campaign $9.0 million and raised $11.4 million overall. Though he steers clear of the label “anti-Trump,” Dolan is no fan of the ex-president and has avoided paying fealty to him on the campaign trail. These days, that’s not usually an asset in a GOP primary, but it has earned Dolan a notable endorsement: that of like-minded Gov. Mike DeWine.

The most likely winner, though, is probably pro-Trump businessman Bernie Moreno. He has raised $9.7 million for his campaign ($4.2 million of which came from his own pocket), and he has been rising in the polls ever since Trump endorsed him in December. As of Monday at 10 a.m. Eastern, Moreno led 538’s polling average of the primary with 28 percent, followed by Dolan at 25 percent and LaRose at 20 percent.

However, it’s unclear whether or how a late-breaking scandal — that Moreno’s email was used to create a profile on an adult website that sought “Men for 1-on-1 sex” in 2008 — could affect the race. (Moreno’s lawyer said an intern created the profile as a prank.)

PHOTO: 538's polling average for the 2024 Ohio Senate Republican primary race, showing Bernie Moreno at 27.8 percent, Matt Dolan at 24.5 percent and Frank LaRose at 20.2 percent.
538's average of the 2024 Ohio Senate Republican primary race.
538 Photo Illustration

Ohio Republicans will also choose their nominees in two competitive House seats they’re hoping to flip. According to Daily Kos Elections, Trump would have carried Ohio’s 9th District 51 percent to 48 percent in 2020. But in 2022, incumbent Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur defeated Republican Air Force veteran J.R. Majewski 57 percent to 43 percent here thanks to Majewski’s weaknesses as a candidate: He exaggerated his military service, attended the Jan. 6 rally (though he says he didn’t enter the Capitol) and once subscribed to the QAnon conspiracy theory.

Majewski quickly announced he would run again in 2024, agitating Republican operatives who feared he would once again throw away a winnable House seat. But to their relief, he withdrew from the race a few weeks ago,* leaving the primary to state Rep. Derek Merrin and former state Rep. Craig Riedel. Riedel was originally the top alternative to Majewski, but a couple of his pro-Trump supporters withdrew their endorsement of him after audio leaked of him calling Trump “arrogant.” That sent GOP elders scrambling to find a new alternative to Majewski, and Merrin — who was in line to be the speaker of the Ohio state House last year until a faction of renegade Republicans joined Democrats to elect a different Republican — jumped into the race just before the filing deadline.

The primary is far from settled, though. While Speaker Mike Johnson has endorsed Merrin, many establishment Republicans, such as House Majority Leader Steve Scalise and Majority Whip Tom Emmer, are still with Riedel. And Merrin’s late entry into the race means he trails Riedel badly in fundraising, $175,000 to $1.2 million. And while he’s no Majewski, a Riedel win could still give Republicans headaches: He’s aligned with the tea party movement and has previously expressed interest in joining the hardline House Freedom Caucus.

There have been fewer twists and turns in the Republican primary for the 13th District, which President Joe Biden would have carried by 3 percentage points in 2020. Democratic Rep. Emilia Sykes will likely face either former state Sen. Kevin Coughlin or Hudson City Councilor Chris Banweg in November. Not much distinguishes the two, though: They both support Trump and share the same conservative positions on abortion, immigration, guns and more. And they both have raised only modest amounts of money: $332,000 for Coughlin, $280,000 for Banweg. Sykes, by contrast, has pulled in $1.9 million for her reelection bid so far.

Ohio will also host competitive Republican primaries for two solidly red open seats. In the 2nd District, 11 Republicans are vying to replace retiring Rep. Brad Wenstrup, but three businessmen have used their wallets to stand out from the crowd. Concrete business owner David Taylor has loaned his own campaign $1.7 million, while Larry Kidd, who owns a hiring agency, has invested $1.3 million in the race. Meanwhile, Dunkin’ Donuts and LaRosa’s Pizzeria franchisee Tim O’Hara has spun up the third-most dough after self-funding $1.2 million.

Two state legislators are also running. State Sen. Niraj Antani has raised a respectable $671,000, but his district doesn’t overlap at all with the 2nd District, according to Daily Kos. State Sen. Shane Wilkin, by contrast, already represents 33 percent of the 2nd District, but he has raised only $146,000. If we had to pick a favorite here, it would probably be Taylor given that he has the most money and he’s the only major candidate from Clermont County, by far the most vote-rich county in the district. There are no runoffs in Ohio, so whoever finishes first in the primary will become the nominee even if they win just a bare plurality.

Finally, former Rep. Bill Johnson resigned from the House in January, meaning his 6th District will host both a special and a regular primary election on Tuesday. In all likelihood, the same candidate will win both primaries, but it’s technically possible for one candidate to win the special primary and go on to win the special general election on June 11, while another candidate wins the regular primary for a full two-year term starting in 2025. It’s extremely improbable, but a noteworthy quirk nonetheless.

One way or another, state Sen. Michael Rulli or state Rep. Reggie Stoltzfus is likely to be this district’s next representative. The primary is a proxy fight between the governing and insurgent wings of the GOP: Rulli has been endorsed by the moderate super PAC Defending Main Street, while Stoltzfus says he’d join the Freedom Caucus if elected.

On paper, Rulli has the upper hand here since he represents more of the 6th District than Stoltzfus and just recently ran an active campaign there for state Senate. However, for this race, Stoltzfus has marginally outraised Rulli $488,000 to $443,000. In addition, two teenagers have accused Rulli and his wife of shooting at them after they allegedly trespassed on the Rullis’ property late last year; Rulli has maintained that they only fired warning shots at the ground.

PHOTO: U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, left, endorses then-mayoral candidate Brandon Johnson in the Loop after on March 6, 2023.
U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, left, endorses then-mayoral candidate Brandon Johnson in the Loop after on March 6, 2023.
Chicago Tribune/TNS/Getty Images, FILE


Races to watch: 7th and 12th congressional districts
Polls close: 8 p.m. Eastern

Two members of Congress in the Land of Lincoln — one Democrat and one Republican — are facing tough primary challengers this election. In the 7th District around Chicago, 82-year-old Democratic Rep. Danny Davis, who has been in office since 1997, is once again facing stiff primary opposition. While there are four other candidates in the race, Davis’s main competition is a challenger from the left: Kina Collins, a community organizer and gun-control advocate. Collins came within 7 points of ousting Davis in 2022 and has a few glitzy backers, like indie rockers The Strokes.

However, Davis has the support of local Democratic bigwigs such as Gov. J.B. Pritzker, Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, and in the sole poll for this race from December, he had a sizable lead. Also in the race is Chicago City Treasurer Melissa Conyears-Ervin, who has outraised both Collins and Davis and also has some notable backers, including the Chicago Teachers Union. There’s a chance Conyears-Ervin could act as a spoiler for Collins, splitting the vote of the anti-Davis contingent and delivering the congressman another turn on the ballot. Whoever wins won’t be running unopposed in November — pilot Chad Koppie is running as a Republican — but in this deeply blue district, they may as well be.

Meanwhile, southern Illinois’s 12th District also has an exciting race as Republican Rep. Mike Bost faces off against former state Sen. Darren Bailey, the Republican nominee for governor in 2022. In this district, the reddest in the state, Bailey and Bost are in a battle to prove who is further right. Both candidates were endorsed by Trump in 2022, and both have deeply conservative views on issues like abortion, immigration and guns. In this race, Trump has endorsed Bost.

Bost says his experience as a lawmaker — he served 20 years as a state representative before being elected to Congress in 2015 — sets him apart from Bailey, while Bailey says Bost’s long history is evidence of him being part of the establishment. The two are polling closely, and it’s led the candidates to really crank up the MAGA pageantry. Consider this ad Bailey released in January of him shooting a paper that says “I will not comply,” in response to a state law that requires gun owners to register their assault-style weapons. Similar to the 7th District, whoever wins this primary will be all but guaranteed a seat in Congress, so it’s definitely one to keep an eye on.

PHOTO: Rep. Mike Bost arrives to the U.S. Capitol before the House voted to send an articles of impeachment resolution against President Joe Biden to committees, June 22, 2023.
Rep. Mike Bost arrives to the U.S. Capitol before the House voted to send an articles of impeachment resolution against President Joe Biden to committees, June 22, 2023.
Tom Williams/Getty Images, FILE


Races to watch: 20th Congressional District
Polls close: 11 p.m. Eastern

No, you’re not having déjà vu. There was already a primary election for California’s 20th District, former Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s old seat, on Super Tuesday. That was to determine the candidates who will be on the ballot for this district in November, to serve from 2025 to 2027. This primary is to serve out the duration of McCarthy’s term after he resigned in December.

In California primaries, candidates from all parties are listed on one ballot. That’s how two Republicans — state Assemblyman Vince Fong and Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux — wound up on the November ballot for the Golden’s State’s reddest district. It’s likely the first round of the special election will have similar results, although there’s a chance Democrat Marisa Wood, who came in third on Super Tuesday, may edge out Boudreaux, depending on voter turnout.

Fong, who has been endorsed by both McCarthy and Trump, is the front-runner, and he’s hoping to crack a majority of the vote on Tuesday, which would enable him to avoid a May runoff with the second-place finisher (he got 41 percent on Super Tuesday). But there is one wild card factor: California’s secretary of state is challenging a court ruling that allowed Fong to run for Congress despite already being on the ballot for reelection to the state Assembly. That could mean Fong gets disqualified from the race, so there’s still uncertainty here.


*It was actually the second time Majewski had withdrawn from the race. He quit in May 2023, citing his mother’s health, only to jump back in in September.

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