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What to watch for on Super Tuesday

The beginning of the end of the 2024 presidential primaries starts Tuesday, when President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump are expected to all but clinch a rematch of their 2020 contest eight months ahead of the November general election.

There will be contests in 16 states on this year’s Super Tuesday, with voters going to the polls in every time zone in the continental US, from Alaska and California to Colorado, Minnesota and North Carolina. By the time it’s done, Biden and Trump are both expected to have racked up large numbers of delegates and showdowns will be in place for critical congressional seats and powerful governor’s mansions.

The primaries will also offer additional insight into the strengths and weaknesses of the leading candidates as big-dollar campaigns test their standing with key pieces of the electorate across a country that appears as divided as ever. Inside the parties, long-simmering ideological battles will play out in typically low-turnout, down-ballot primaries.

For former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Trump’s last remaining hurdle to his third GOP presidential nomination, Tuesday marks what is likely her final opportunity to upend the race and slow Trump.

Down the ticket, the race to fill the California Senate seat held for decades by the late Dianne Feinstein will be cut down to a final pair of hopefuls, while a newly drawn district in Alabama, more friendly to Democrats (by court order), is expected to choose its new representative. And in North Carolina, the most hotly contested governor’s race of the year will formally lock in standard-bearers for both parties.

Here are 9 things to watch for:

The night the lights go out on Haley

Barring a stunning upset – actually, multiple stunning upsets across the country – Super Tuesday is looking like the end of the road for Haley.

So what comes next?

While Haley has said she would stay in the race through at least Super Tuesday, she has not hinted at an exit. Candidates rarely do. But if she is swept by Trump, her stated rationale for her campaign – being “competitive” – will pretty much disappear. The former president is widely expected to mathematically clinch the nomination, with 1,215 or more delegates, by the end of the month.

Her electoral fate, though, has been sealed for some time now.

Over the last few weeks, Haley has mostly used her platform to warn the GOP about Trump’s electability and deliver many of the same criticisms of his behavior that Never Trump Republicans, like former Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, made as their political careers ended – at least for now.

Haley’s big decision, whether it comes late Tuesday night, Wednesday morning or in a couple more weeks will be how she frames her defeat – and how she addressed the victor. It seems unlikely, especially given some of her more recent comments, that she will whole-heartedly endorse Trump.

In the end, her reaction to defeat could be as important, at least to her own political career, as the campaign she’s been running for more than a year.

Are there any further signs of weakness for Biden?

Michigan was critical to Biden’s election in 2020. It will be as important, if not more so, this year. So when he was met there with a significant protest vote over his role in Israel’s war in Gaza, it was worth taking note – and stock, as fighting continues on despite hints of an imminent ceasefire.

On Tuesday, Minnesota – another state home to a large population of Muslim Americans – could make similar headlines if enough Democrats cast votes for “uncommitted.” The protest campaign there didn’t have as much runway or the same organization as Michigan’s, but it could yet deliver another warning to the president in a region where he cannot afford to leave votes on the table or allow an opening for a third-party candidate to gain momentum.

Elsewhere, turnout will be the most-used barometer for Biden’s success. Given he has no real competition in the primary, the number of Democrats who get up and out to vote for him anyway could at least slow a narrative of intra-party disillusionment.

Perhaps helpful in that regard is Trump’s strong performance in the GOP contest. Whatever the Democratic rank-and-file thinks about Biden today, the specter of Trump returning to the White House always has and will be critical to the president’s strength.

Any further signs of weakness for Trump?

Trump’s base is pretty much set in stone. But if 2020 was any indication, it won’t be enough to win him the election. Instead, the former president will need to make at least modest inroads with college-educated suburban voters.

That group was a problem for him four years ago and in both the 2018 and 2022 midterms, when, first in office and then from without, the cohort roundly rejected MAGA Republicans. Even as Trump romped in South Carolina last month, his numbers in the suburbs badly lagged in rural areas and smaller towns.

Virginia and North Carolina are on the schedule for Tuesday and each will provide new data points for Trump-backing Republicans, who will keep a close eye on the numbers coming out of each state’s influential and growing suburban populations.

Trump lost Virginia twice, in 2016 and 2020, but won North Carolina both times he was on the ballot. Four years ago, though, his margin of victory there over Biden was less than 1.5%. (Barack Obama, in 2008, is the only Democratic presidential candidate to carry the state in almost a half-century.)

Biden’s approval ratings in the state are not good, but North Carolina Republicans’ abortion ban – passed over the objection of the Democratic governor – was less popular and only made possible because of a turncoat lawmaker who joined the GOP.

A North Carolina governor’s race with implications up and down the ballot

On a Super Tuesday with an unusual lack of spice, the North Carolina gubernatorial primary is a rare exception.

Not because either party’s contest is expected to be close – Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson and Democratic state Attorney General Josh Stein are expected to coast to their parties’ respective nominations. But Robinson is a MAGA star, a politician like Trump who is liable to say anything at any time. That cuts both ways, of course, as Robinson’s repertoire includes numerous examples of bigoted, hateful rhetoric.

On the other side, Stein is betting that his commitment to civil and abortion rights, to go with his more even-handed disposition, will help him keep the governor’s mansion in Democratic hands. (Gov. Roy Cooper, also a Democrat, is term-limited after twice winning the office.)

This could be the rare contest in which the coattails flap up rather than down. Robinson is the kind of wildly divisive figure – he has called the LGBTQ community “filth” and dabbled in Holocaust denial – who, if his campaign goes sideways, could drag other GOP candidates down with it.

Democrats, from Biden to Stein on down, are going to make sure voters know his record – and make him answer for it.

Texas Democrats pick a Cruz challenger

Six years after then-Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s near-miss loss to Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, Democrats remain winless in Texas statewide races since 1994.

US Rep. Colin Allred is the frontrunner to challenge Cruz. But he faces eight rivals, including state Sen. Roland Gutierrez — a San Antonio lawmaker whose district includes Uvalde, and who has made gun restrictions a focus of his campaign — in Tuesday’s primary.

If Allred earns more than 50% of the vote, he’ll advance to the general election against Cruz. But if he doesn’t hit that mark, he’ll face the second-place primary finisher in a May runoff.

Texas, along with Florida, might represent Democrats’ best chance of going on offense on the 2024 Senate map, as the party defends a slew of seats in states Trump is likely to win in the presidential race — including Montana, Ohio and West Virginia, as well as presidential battlegrounds Arizona, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Allred, a former NFL player who won his House seat by ousting a Republican incumbent in a hard-fought 2018 race, has focused on health care — including his support for the Affordable Care Act and abortion rights. He is also a prolific fundraiser, outraising Cruz $4.8 million to $3.4 million in 2023’s fourth quarter and ending the year with $10 million in the bank to Cruz’s $6.2 million.

Down-ballot in Texas, there’s more to watch, starting with the payback campaign of Attorney General Ken Paxton. Paxton, who in the Texas Legislature was impeached by the House but not convicted by the Senate, is backing efforts to oust more than 30 Republican state lawmakers, including House Speaker Dade Phelan, a vocal critic of the attorney general. He’s also seeking to oust three conservative members of the state’s appeals court who voted to limit the attorney general’s powers.

Does a Republican advance in California’s Senate race?

The race to fill the seat once held by the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein — currently filled by appointed Sen. Laphonza Butler, who isn’t seeking a full term — long looked likely to be a Democrat vs. Democrat general election.

But Republican Steve Garvey, a former baseball star, could crash that party – not that the Democratic front-runner, Rep. Adam Schiff, would mind.

In California, all candidates regardless of party compete in the same primary, and the top two finishers advance to the general election.

Schiff faces stiff Democratic competition, including from fellow Reps. Katie Porter and Barbara Lee.

Garvey hasn’t aired a single television ad. But Schiff’s campaign has aired ads labeling Garvey as “too conservative” — a strategy that could help him in the primary by turning out California’s conservative voters.

Those conservatives make up a minority of the state’s electorate, to be sure, but if they consolidate behind one candidate and the Democratic vote is fractured, it could be enough for Garvey to make the top two.

The strategy behind Schiff’s ads is built on the belief that a Democrat vs. Democrat race would be unpredictable, while a Republican general election opponent would be much easier to beat in the deep-blue state.

Two Alabama House showdowns

New congressional district maps in Alabama are set to shake up the state’s congressional delegation.

Two Republican incumbents, current 1st District Rep. Jerry Carl and 2nd District Rep. Barry Moore, were both drawn into the new 1st District — which means Tuesday’s primary will spell the end of one of their congressional careers.

The race is widely seen as a contest between the more conservative Moore, a House Freedom Caucus member who has campaigned with Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, and the more pragmatic Carl, who is backed by Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise, the No. 2 House Republican, and the Chamber of Commerce.

The new 2nd District, which now includes much of the Black Belt, is seen as a likely Democratic pickup. Eleven Democratic candidates, including five state lawmakers, and seven Republicans are on Tuesday’s primary ballots. The huge fields mean it’s unlikely any single candidate gets more than 50% of the vote, so one or both primaries could go to an April runoff featuring the top two finishers.

The new districts are the result of a legal confrontation that drew national attention to Alabama. A federal court approved a new congressional map last year that gives the state’s African American residents – who make up about 27% of the population – the opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice in a second House district. Currently, Black voters make up the majority of voters in just one district out of seven in Alabama. It’s represented by Democrat Terri Sewell, the only Black member of the state’s congressional delegation

California House races key to majority battle

Democrats are targeting seven Republican-held House seats in California — turning the state into ground zero in the party’s bid for a net gain of at least four seats in November that would win them back the majority.

The outcome of some Tuesday primaries — contests in which all candidates appear on the same ballot and the top two vote-getters advance to November — will shape those fall races.

Though major interest groups have split their support in several competitive contests, the most important thing to watch is whether either party gets locked out of a key race.

Among the Republican-held seats to watch closely: The 22nd District, where Rep. David Valadao faces two Democrats and one Republican in his bid to hold his always-competitive Central Valley seat; the 45th District, held by Rep. Michelle Steel; the 40th District, represented by Rep. Young Kim; and Rep. Ken Calvert’s 41st District.

And among the Democratic-held seats to watch: The 47th District, where Rep. Katie Porter’s Senate bid has left a vacancy in Orange County that Republican former state Assemblyman Scott Baugh hopes to fill; Rep. Josh Harder’s 9th District; and Rep. Mike Levin’s 49th District.

Criminal justice ballot measures to watch

In San Francisco — the city conservatives frequently cite as an example of rampant property crime and drug use — Mayor London Breed is backing a measure that would allow the police department to install surveillance cameras that use facial recognition technology, enable police to chase those suspected of committing felonies or misdemeanors and use drones for car chases.

Another measure would set minimum staffing levels for the police department, a measure the city’s Board of Supervisors argues would help crack down on crime, but that would require a tax hike to fund.

The measures are a test of whether, after a yearslong progressive push for more liberal criminal justice policies, voters are now seeking more aggressive crack-downs on crime.

In Los Angeles, District Attorney George Gascon, who has already survived two recall efforts, faces 11 challengers, many of whom criticize him as too progressive over his refusal to seek cash bail for misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies.

Gascon has also faced criticism for two policies he has since eased, including a blanket ban on prosecuting juveniles as adults and refusing to seek lifetime prison sentences without parole.

CNN’s Simone Pathe and Fredreka Schouten contributed to this report.

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