WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Voters had their say in primary races in the upper Midwestern states of Wisconsin and Minnesota on Tuesday, two key battlegrounds in November’s congressional elections that could determine control of Congress.
Polls in both states closed at 9 p.m. ET (0100 GMT Wednesday), and returns were beginning to come in.
States such as Wisconsin helped drive Donald Trump’s surprising presidential win two years ago, and voter turnout there and in neighboring Minnesota could serve as a barometer of opposition strength headed into the midterm elections.
Both states have shown signs of drifting rightward in recent years. Trump was the first Republican presidential candidate to win Wisconsin in 32 years, and he narrowly lost to Democrat Hillary Clinton in Minnesota.
Trump’s consistently low approval ratings and his trade policies, however, may have given Democrats renewed life.
Foreign tariffs on U.S. agricultural goods in retaliation for Trump’s policies have become a central issue in the region, while Trump’s feud with iconic Wisconsin motorcycle maker Harley-Davidson Inc has placed Republicans there in an awkward position. That company’s stock has lost 19 percent so far this year.
Wisconsin voters signaled their unrest by turning out in large numbers and electing Democrats in a series of special state elections earlier this year, including a pair of wins in districts that had supported Trump in 2016 by wide margins.
Democratic turnout has surged in congressional primary contests across the nation this year compared with the last midterm elections in 2014.
In November, all 435 U.S. House members and one-third of the Senate are running for re-election. Democrats need to add a net total of two Senate seats to seize control of that chamber from Republicans. In the House, Democrats need to win 23 seats to assume control, which would derail or stall much of Trump’s policy agenda and increase congressional oversight and investigation of the administration.
To that end, Democrats hope the number of party voters who participated in Wisconsin primaries on Tuesday approaches the 1 million who voted in the primary in 2016, a presidential year, compared with 300,000 votes for the Democratic gubernatorial candidate in 2014.
More than 104,000 people had returned absentee ballots in the state through Tuesday, according to the state elections commission’s Twitter account. That is roughly a 20 percent increase from the primaries held two years ago.
Democrats would love to capture the Milwaukee suburban House district of Republican U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan, who is leaving office. Ryan supports former aide Bryan Steil to replace him, but Steil must fend off a primary challenge from avowed white supremacist Paul Nehlen.
Among Democrats, ironworker Randy Bryce was facing Cathy Myers, a local school board member.
Democrats also chose a nominee to battle Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, a former presidential candidate seeking a third term. That race will be another indicator of whether state voters have soured on Republican leadership.
“For Walker, it’s going to be a tougher run for him than in 2010 and 2014,” said Kenneth Mayer, professor of political science and an affiliate of the Elections Research Center at University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Wisconsin Republicans chose between Kevin Nicholson and Leah Vukmir to take on incumbent Democratic Senator Tammy Baldwin in November.
While Trump has endorsed neither candidate, Nicholson was originally backed by former Trump political adviser Steve Bannon and conservative Senator Ted Cruz of Texas.
Vukmir has support from party establishment figures such as Walker and Ryan. Congressional analysts say Baldwin remains favored to keep her seat in November.
TRADE FACTORS INTO MINNESOTA RACES
In Minnesota, notable primaries in two House districts could help determine control of Congress, representing regions affected by Trump’s trade policies.
A bevy of Democrats were running in an open-seat race in the northeastern part of the state known as the Iron Range, so-called because of mining there. That region has seen some benefit from the administration’s steel and aluminum tariffs.
Trump has already campaigned in the district on behalf of the Republican favorite, Pete Stauber.
In the south, two Republicans, Jim Hagedorn and Carla Nelson, squared off in a House district that Republicans hope to seize after the Democratic incumbent, Tim Walz, ran for governor. Farmers there have complained about harm from retaliatory tariffs from China and other countries.
Minnesota’s governor race featured former Republican governor and 2012 presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty, who is trying to get his old job back. He was running against Jeff Johnson, who lost to departing Democratic Governor Mark Dayton four years ago.
Three Democrats were competing to succeed Dayton, including Walz, Erin Murphy, former majority leader of the state’s lower house, and State Attorney General Lori Swanson.
“There’s a sense among some that Walz may be more electable in the general and that may swing some more voters toward him,” said Kathryn Pearson, associate professor of political science at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
Beyond the Upper Midwest, Connecticut and Vermont also held primaries on Tuesday.
In Vermont, Christine Hallquist was poised to become the first openly transgender person to win a major U.S. party nomination for statewide office after the Associated Press projected that she would win the Democratic governor’s primary.
Senator Bernie Sanders, the former presidential candidate, easily won that state’s Democratic Senate primary. But Sanders, as he has done before, is expected to decline the nomination and run as an independent.
Reporting by James Oliphant; Additional reporting by David Gaffen in New York; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Lisa Shumaker