Sheriff Joe, Kris Kobach, and Rashida Tlaib Are on the Ballot in 2020’s Last Big Primary Night

Tuesday’s elections include some major contests to determine the future of both parties in some way.
August 4, 2020, 5:45pm
From left to right: Sheriff Joe Arpaio (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File); Kris Kobach (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner); Rashida Tlaib (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

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WASHINGTON — The 2020 general election is less than three months away, but primary season isn’t quite done — and Tuesday’s elections include some major contests to determine the future of both parties.

The race with the biggest national implications is going down in Kansas, where establishment Republicans are praying that lightning rod former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach doesn’t win his Senate primary and potentially jeopardize the seat in the fall. 

On the other side of the political spectrum, progressive freshman and founding “Squad” member Rep. Rashida Tlaib is facing a tough rematch in Michigan against a woman who she’s actually lost to before.

Those races top a busy night. Scandal-plagued Rep. Steve Watkins (R-Kan.) is facing a serious primary. Rep. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), a senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus, is squaring off for the second time against progressive Black Lives Matter activist Cori Bush. And race-baiting Republican former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio is taking one more shot at elected office in Arizona.

Oh, and election administration problems are already cropping up in a few spots that should scare anyone hoping for a smooth November election. Crucial swing-state Michigan, for example, is struggling with its mail ballot process due to post office problems.

Here’s how Tuesday’s primaries could shake out.

Kansas Senate

Kobach, a once-close ally of President Trump who led his bogus Voting Fraud Commission, narrowly lost a race for governor in 2018 in deep-red Kansas. National Republicans are worried if he gets the Senate nomination, it will cost them millions to protect that seat — which they could potentially lose altogether.  They failed to convince Trump to endorse their preferred candidate against him in the race.

Kobach is facing off against Rep. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.), self-funded plumbing magnate Bob Hamilton, and former Kansas City Chiefs player Dave Lindstrom in a fluid race Marshall is the establishment favorite, while Hamilton’s big money has bought him some support in the race as well.

Democrats haven’t won a Senate race in the state since the Great Depression but have a well-funded and moderate candidate in state Sen. Barbara Bollier, a former Republican, who they think has a real chance to win if Kobach is her opponent. Recent private polls show that as much as one third of GOP primary voters wouldn’t support Kobach in the general election if he is the nominee.

Establishment Republicans have rallied to Marshall in hopes of avoiding a replay of 2018. They’re worried that if Kobach wins the nomination, they’ll have to spend millions to save him that they’d much rather be spending elsewhere. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Republican Senatorial Committee are backing Marshall, as are local farmers’ and anti-abortion groups.

Trump didn’t endorse Kobach this time, but Kobach has used him in his ads.

Kobach has failed to raise any serious funds for the race, and if not for outside meddling might have been a dead man running in this race. But he’s gotten some huge help, from both friends and frenemies. 

Tech billionaire and Trump ally Peter Thiel has dropped almost $1 million into a super-PAC to help his old anti-immigration buddy. And a shadowy super-PAC with Democratic ties has spent almost $5 million to elevate Kobach and damage Marshall with ads, far outpacing Kobach’s own campaign spending on the race. 

But Kobach retains a hardcore base of support, and if he slips through the primary he could create a major migraine for the GOP as they fight to hang onto the Senate.

Kansas House

Rep. Steve Watkins (R-Kan.) is also facing a tough primary in a seat that’s not a lock for the GOP.

Watkins was charged with voter fraud for listing a UPS store as his home voting address, charges he called politically motivated but that have dogged him on the trail.

Watkins narrowly won his race in 2018 during a Democratic wave year, and faces Kansas state Treasurer Jake LaTurner in this race. If he hangs on, Democrats think they could flip the deep red seat.

Michigan House

Tlaib is facing a tough reelection battle against the woman she upset in 2018.

Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones (D) was the favorite heading into that race, but a divided field with a number of other African American candidates gave Tlaib just enough space to pull out a 900-vote win over Jones. Jones actually won the race for the remainder of the term after Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) resigned, because two of the candidates who ran for the full term didn’t qualify for the ballot.

Now Jones has a clean one-on-one change against Tlaib — but the dynamics of the race have shifted considerably.

First, Tlaib’s sparring with President Trump has endeared her to her solidly Democratic district. She’s no longer the little-known former state lawmaker with little establishment support that she once was. Her “impeach the motherfucker” comment made her famous, and Trump’s racist “send them back” attacks against her and other members of the progressive “Squad” drove most Democrats to her defense. Her strong support for Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid also helped her build a grassroots national network.

Tlaib has parlayed her national stature into a major fundraising advantage as well. She’s raised nearly $3 million for the race, while Jones has brought in less than $200,000.

And while Jones is a local political powerhouse she hasn’t been able to run as strong a race as many expected. That’s partly because of health issues — Jones contracted the coronavirus in April, which took her off the campaign trail for weeks at a crucial time.

On top of that, Tlaib is no longer the little-known former state lawmaker with little establishment support that she once was. While most local politicians and unions backed Jones last time, Tlaib now has many of their endorsements, with support from groups like the state AFL-CIO and the United Auto Workers to go along with her endorsement from Sanders and national progressive groups.

The Detroit district is Black-majoriity, so Jones has a demographic advantage. Tlaib’s national political efforts for Sanders and fights with Trump have also allowed Jones to accuse her of being more interested in the limelight than helping the poor district.

Tlaib’s refusal to endorse Joe Biden also might not sit well with some voters locally. But she looks to have the advantage heading into her primary.

Missouri House

Black Lives Matter activist Cori Bush, who cut her teeth during the Ferguson protests more than five years ago, is taking a second shot against Rep. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), a senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Bush has accused Clay of not standing up to fight hard enough for his people, while Clay dismisses her as a “prop” of national leftwing groups looking to unseat more moderate Democrats.

She’s also faced personal hardship during this race, surviving a bout with the coronavirus.

Clay won their first contest in 2018 by about 20 points, but Bush has raised a lot more money this time around, has run a more organized campaign, and has been a lot more vocal about police brutality — a crucial point in a Democratic primary during the summer of Black Lives Matter protests. There’s a chance she pulls off an upset in this rematch.

Maricopa County, Arizona Sheriff

Former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio finally got tossed from office in 2016 after decades as one of the nation’s most controversial elected figures. He then got convicted of criminal contempt for seeking to undermine investigations into his vicious approach to undocumented immigrants. But after President Trump pardoned his old ally, the 88-year-old Arpaio decided to seek political resurrection.

Tuesday is Arpaio’s first test — and it’s not clear he can even pass this one. Arpaio is facing two other candidates in the GOP primary including his former chief deputy, Jerry Sheridan.

If he pulls out a win, he’ll face a rematch against Democratic Sheriff Paul Penzone, who ousted Arpaio in 2016.

Democrats are quietly hoping Arpaio will be on the ballot again — if he is, they think it can help boost Hispanic turnout in the largest county in a key presidential battleground.

Cover: From left to right: Sheriff Joe Arpaio (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File); Kris Kobach (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner); Rashida Tlaib (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)