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Move over GOP presidential primary. The real action is down-ballot.

There has never been much suspense in the presidential primaries. But the future of both political parties is at stake in the nominating battles further down the ballot.

Some of the biggest contests are in March, when eight states are holding their primaries for Congress, four for Senate and one for governor. There’s plenty of action if you just scroll down the ballot.

Republicans are facing yet another front in the ongoing insurgent takeover against the governing wing of the party. Democratic candidates are split on the war in the Middle East. And there’s also the political jiujitsu in California, where the math in the top-two primary means one side is in danger of being eliminated before the general election even begins.

And the outcomes of these primaries won’t just chart the trajectory of the two parties — they’ll also be central to determining which party controls the Senate, House and key governorships this time next year.

Here’s a cheat sheet to the races you should be watching:

Primaries that will set up key races for November

There’s no March race more consequential for the general election than the Ohio Senate Republican primary. Three main contenders are vying to take on the three-term Democratic incumbent, Sen. Sherrod Brown: businessperson Bernie Moreno, Secretary of State Frank LaRose and state Sen. Matt Dolan.

Whoever wins the nomination will have the GOP’s fortunes in his hands. Brown holds one of three Democratic Senate seats in states Trump won in 2020 that are up for election this year; Republicans need to pick up two of those seats to flip the chamber, or only one if they also capture the presidency.

Moreno has Trump’s endorsement and has emerged as the favorite in the March 19 primary, though LaRose (who has a well-heeled super PAC supporting his candidacy) and Dolan (who is self-funding) are still in the ballgame.

And it’s not just the Senate in Ohio. Republicans thought they had a surefire pickup two years ago in Ohio’s 9th District, but Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur didn’t just win reelection — she prevailed by 13 points in a district Trump carried. Now Republicans are trying again, and with such a narrow majority, any pickup would be huge for the GOP.

Kaptur’s success in 2022 came largely because the GOP nominated J.R. Majewski was accused in a news report of misrepresenting his military service. Majewski is back for another run, and some Republicans fear he’d lose handily to Kaptur again.

The problem for them is there are two other prominent GOP candidates in the primary: state Rep. Derek Merrin and former state Rep. Craig Riedel. That could split the anti-Majewski vote.

Speaking of controversial nominees, Republicans are poised to choose Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson on March 5 as their candidate for North Carolina governor. Robinson’s history of incendiary comments about Jews, women and LGBT people would probably make him a slight underdog against the likely Democratic nominee, state Attorney General Josh Stein.

Self-funder Bill Graham is running ads in the GOP primary highlighting Robinson’s past statements that could double as general-election spots, but they don’t seem to be threatening Robinson’s nomination.

The GOP made North Carolina’s 1st District more competitive in mid-decade redistricting and might have a good chance to topple freshman Democratic Rep. Don Davis — if the party doesn’t nominate two-time failed candidate Sandy Smith again. Smith has been accused of domestic violence by two of her ex-husbands, and Congressional Leadership Fund, the top House GOP super PAC, ran ads featuring the allegations two years ago in a failed effort to thwart her nomination.

Republicans are rooting for retired Army Col. Laurie Buckhout, who is far better funded, to beat Smith in the primary and face Davis in November. CLF has spent or reserved about $100,000 on radio ads to boost Buckhout before the March 5 primary.

Republican primaries that show a Trumpified party

The tensions roiling the GOP will be on full display in safe-seat races where the Trump wing is ascendant. The eventual winners will almost certainly make the House GOP conference even Trumpier, as longtime members like Kay Granger of Texas and Brad Wenstrup of Ohio are replaced.

From Alabama to Texas to Illinois, these skirmishes will play out throughout the month of March.

On Super Tuesday, March 5, two incumbent members of Congress will square off in Alabama’s 1st District, thanks to court-ordered redistricting. GOP Rep. Barry Moore is a House Freedom Caucus member, while Rep. Jerry Carl is the establishment pick. Moore and his allies are hitting Carl as insufficiently supportive of Trump and his policies, while Carl’s supporters link Moore’s votes against government spending bills with opposing military pay raises and other priorities in the district.

When he was first elected to Congress in 2014, Mike Bost was a proto-Trump, attacked by Democrats as angry and unhinged. But 10 years later, Bost is the target of a Trump-inspired primary challenge in Illinois’ 12th District from Darren Bailey, Republicans’ 2022 gubernatorial nominee.

Trump hasn’t endorsed Bailey, but Bailey is still trying to claim the MAGA mantle. Next week, he’s raffling off a “commemorative Donald J. Trump” pistol.

Texas’ 23rd District, held by GOP Rep. Tony Gonzales, includes a longer stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border than any district. Gonzales has embraced a harder line on immigration in recent months as he’s faced a nominal primary challenge.

There are also more than a half-dozen open-seat primaries in North Carolina (thanks to Republican-led redistricting), Texas and Ohio in which the candidates are each trying to outflank the others on the right.

Primaries that reveal the Democratic Party’s present and future

Democrats have their own revealing primaries in March, from Silicon Valley to Alabama’s Black Belt. But none has exposed the party’s cleavages the way Republican races have.

An example: United Democracy Project, the super PAC funded by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, has waded into the race in California’s 47th District to back Joanna Weiss over state Sen. Dave Min. But the group’s ad doesn’t explore the rift between Weiss and Min on the Middle East — it features police bodycam footage of Min’s DUI arrest last year.

There’s the race for Alabama’s 2nd District, a new, nearly majority-Black seat. But most of the advertising highlights the biographies of the Democratic candidates.

Same with the Texas Senate race, in which Democratic Rep. Colin Allred is expected to secure the nomination to face GOP Sen. Ted Cruz in November.

There are two Democratic primaries in March that highlight Democrats’ generational divide. In Texas’ 18th District, Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee is running for reelection after losing last year’s race for Houston mayor. Her last-minute reentry into the race has not dissuaded former city councilmember Amanda Edwards from remaining in the congressional contest. In her TV ads, Edwards proclaims, “It’s time for change,” though there’s no substantive criticism of Jackson Lee or her policies.

Similarly, in Illinois’ 7th District, 82-year-old Democratic Rep. Danny Davis faces yet another primary challenge. But despite the embarrassment of the revelation that Davis’ campaign used artificial intelligence to make him look younger, a fractured primary field could result in Davis winning a 15th term.

California Scheming

From the California Senate race to a battleground House race in the Central Valley, the state’s top-two primary system is forcing some fascinating machinations in the closing weeks before the March 5 vote.

Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff is openly promoting Republican Steve Garvey’s campaign in an effort to propel the former All-Star first baseman into the general election for Senate, which Schiff would almost certainly win in a state as blue as California.

That’s drawn howls from Democratic Rep. Katie Porter, who’s running neck and neck in the polls with Garvey for second place. A Schiff-vs.-Porter general election would force both Democrats to campaign among a broad but left-leaning electorate.

The math is even more existential for the two parties in California’s 22nd District. The race includes four candidates: Trump-impeaching GOP Rep. David Valadao, conservative Republican Chris Mathys, former Democratic state Assemblyman Rudy Salas and Democratic state Sen. Melissa Hurtado.

Democrats want to ensure Salas makes the general, while Republicans are eager to protect Valadao. That’s led to some creative maneuvers: National Democrats have intervened to promote Salas, while the Congressional Leadership Fund is attacking Mathys, who almost unseated Valadao in the 2022 primary, as “soft on crime.”

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Author: POLITICO