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What To Watch For This Primary Election Season


Now to hear more about those primary elections I mentioned, we called in NPR political editor Charles Mahtesian to walk us through the primary races we should be watching. With congressional approval rating is at a record low, I asked Mahtesian whether that means more incumbents are being challenged within their own parties this year.

CHARLES MAHTESIAN, BYLINE: It's hard to say with any certainty if there are any more primary challenges in the House or Senate than in a typical year. And that's largely because most candidate filing deadlines haven't been past. So in the vast majority of states, we still don't know what the candidate fields will look like. But certainly on the Senate side, there is some evidence that this is a pretty unusual year because there are a least a half dozen or so Senate Republican incumbents who are facing serious, or at least viable primary challengers. And it's fairly unusual that you would see so many competitive primary challenges on the Senate side.

LYDEN: The deepest divisions, Charlie, as you know, appear to be within the Republican Party where we've seen these conflicts with the GOP's Tea Party wing challenging candidates who are more moderate. Give us an overview of the top Tea Party primary challenges to watch, would you?

MAHTESIAN: Well, certainly the Senate is the place where the real action is taking place this year. You might say that Senate minority leader Mitch O'Connell's primary in Kentucky is the marquee race to watch because after all, he's the party's top dog in the Senate. And after that, I think you could point to South Carolina and Lindsey Graham or veteran incumbents like Senator Pat Roberts in Kansas or Senator Thad Cochran in Mississippi, both of who are facing pretty tough intra-party challenges for the first time.

And then, if you look at the House, I'd say there's probably a pretty fascinating contest in Idaho, where you really get to see that Tea Party establishment line in a really stark way. And it provides an excellent snapshot of all the forces and the issues that are playing in these Tea Party establishment-oriented races.

LYDEN: And let's return to Texas. As the results trickle in on Tuesday, how worried should Senator Cornyn be?

MAHTESIAN: Well, probably not very. Congressman Stockman's challenge against him - he's a congressman challenging John Cornyn - never really materialized for any number of reasons. First, you begin with the fact that incumbents like John Cornyn have seen what's been happening in the landscape in recent years. And so, they don't get caught sleeping anymore in challenges like these.

The senator also raised tons of money and has run a very smart race, while, I think, it's fair to say that Congressman Stockman has proved to be something of an erratic candidate who doesn't have that kind of money necessary to run in an enormous state like Texas. So he hasn't been able to consolidate Tea Party support. And he got into the race pretty late. And when you do that, when you get into a race pretty late, you have very little money in a huge state like Texas - with many media markets - that really hampers your ability to run a successful campaign.

LYDEN: Let's not leave the Democrats out of this. Are there any notable primaries to watch on the Democratic side this year?

MAHTESIAN: Well, there isn't as much action on the Democratic side. At least not yet from what we can tell. And I think that's a reflection of an environment where there is just much more ideological uniformity among Democrats these days than Republicans. But you can already see two great primaries that are emerging out West.

First, there's in California's Silicon Valley, there's this great race between veteran Congressman Mike Honda. And he's facing a much younger challenger who's using generational themes in his effort to oust the congressman. And then, if you look to Hawaii - even farther West, there's this amazing primary where you get this insight into a very unique political culture.

Hawaii's political culture is very distinctive and very different than most of the states. And there, you've got an appointed senator, Senator Brian Schatz, was facing a challenge from Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa in a race that is shot through with age and racial and gender overtones. So that will be a great one to watch in August.

LYDEN: NPR political editor, Charles Mahtesian, thanks.

MAHTESIAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.