Centrists face firebrands in congressional party primaries

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WASHINGTON (AP) – Establishment-backed centrist Cal Cunningham bested a progressive challenger for the Democratic nomination to oppose North Carolina Republican Sen. Thom Tillis as Super Tuesday voters in four states picked candidates for November’s battle for congressional control.

Hundreds of miles to the south, former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions was fighting for political redemption. Sessions was hoping the sour relationship he endured with President Donald Trump won’t derail his bid to be the Republican nominee for the Alabama Senate seat that was his for 20 years before his contentious stay in the administration.

In Texas and California as well, Democrats and Republicans were selecting dozens of congressional nominees. The races were giving party leaders an early look at whether voters in 2020 were reacting to the combative Trump era with a preference for centrist or more ideological candidates.

The Senate and House contests were mere under cards to the day’s Democratic presidential primaries in 14 states and one territory. Moderate former Vice President Joe Biden was waging a reinvigorated fight against avowed socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders and others for the party’s nod to confront Trump on Election Day.

The easy win by Cunningham, 46, a former state senator who served as an Army lawyer in Iraq and Afghanistan, set the stage for one of Election Day’s pivotal showdowns for Senate control.

Tillis faced only nominal opposition for the GOP nomination and is one of his party’s most vulnerable incumbents as it defends its 53-47 Senate majority. Tillis alienated conservatives by briefly opposing Trump’s move to defy Congress and channel federal funds to building a wall along the Mexican border, and his fate in the swing state will hinge on how Trump – who’s since endorsed him – fares there in November.

Cunningham’s closest competitor was liberal state Sen. Erica Smith, a former engineer who waged a long-shot effort to become the first African American woman elected to the Senate from the South. Cunningham was backed by Democratic leaders in Washington and Smith’s campaign was badly outspent, despite $3 million spent on her behalf by allies of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who’d hoped to undermine Cunningham.

The Senate GOP campaign committee greeted Cunningham’s win by calling him “a wholly owned subsidiary of Chuck Schumer’s liberal dark money groups,” a reference to political organizations aligned with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. The Senate Democratic political arm responded that Republicans are “terrified” to run against Cunningham.

In Alabama, Sessions was hoping to take an initial step to returning to the Senate, where he was one of its most conservative members before Trump made him his first attorney general in 2017. Their relationship crumbled quickly after he enraged Trump by recusing himself from the Justice Department’s burgeoning probe of Russian efforts to help Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.

Sessions, 73, cast himself as a Trump loyalist despite their falling out, and Trump’s virtual silence about the primary left uncertainty about how voters will react. Sessions faced GOP rivals who are also touting their fealty to Trump, including former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville and four-term Rep. Brendan Byrne.

If no one receives over half the vote, a March 31 primary will determine the GOP nominee, a contest expected to pit Sessions against Tuberville or Byrne. Any of them will be favored in November’s election in the deep-red state against Sen. Doug Jones, a Democrat.

An afterthought in the contest is former Alabama State Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore. Moore was the GOP’s nominee in a December 2017 special election for the seat, losing narrowly to Jones following allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior with teenagers decades ago when Moore was in his 30s.

Texas GOP Sen. John Cornyn will be renominated for a fourth term and seems difficult for Democrats to defeat in November.

Democratic hopeful MJ Hegar, who lost a surprisingly close 2018 House race, is backed by her party’s hierarchy but faces a slew of challengers. A runoff seems likely because no contenders – including Hegar, an Air Force helicopter pilot wounded in Afghanistan – seem likely Tuesday to garner the majority required to avoid one.

Her challengers include Cristina Tzintzun Ramirez, a liberal political organizer who’s received financial backing from progressive groups and the endorsement of progressive luminaries like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. Another contender is Royce West, a long-serving state senator.

A closely watched Texas primary will pit Rep. Henry Cuellar, one of the House’s most conservative Democrats, who’s trying to hold his sprawling South Texas district against liberal challenger Jessica Cisneros.

Cuellar has voted to curb abortions and is supported by the National Rifle Association, but he’s also backed by Democratic leaders including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. Cuellar is a top target of liberal groups, while Cisneros, a 26-year-old immigration attorney, is backed by Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez.

On the GOP side, 12-term Texas Rep. Kay Granger is battling a challenge in her Fort Worth district from conservative Chris Putnam. Granger is endorsed by Trump and has helped cut budget compromises as top Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, while Putnam has drawn support from the anti-spending Club for Growth.

California, whose 53-seat delegation is Congress’ largest and includes 46 Democrats, features all-party primaries Tuesday. Democratic incumbent Reps. Jim Costa of the state’s Central Valley and Jimmy Gomez of Los Angeles aAre among those who might each face a liberal challenger when the top two finishers in each contest meet again in November.

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Associated Press writer Gary Robertson in Raleigh, North Carolina, contributed to this report.

FILE – In this Monday, Jan. 27, 2020, file photo, Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Cal Cunningham speaks during an interview in Raleigh, N.C. The choice for North Carolina Democrats on a challenger to Republican Sen. Thom Tillis likely comes down to Cunningham, an Iraq War veteran with the backing of the party’s establishment, or Erica Smith, an African-American woman trying to beckon the party’s liberal wing. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome, File)
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