WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican Jeff Sessions, a former attorney general under President Donald Trump, was headed to a runoff in Alabama as he sought on Tuesday to advance his bid to return to the U.S. Senate in a wave of congressional primaries.
Voters in a handful of states were weighing in on lower-level races including nominating contests for the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, as well as picking among candidates seeking the Democratic presidential nomination to face the Republican Trump in November’s election.
Below are some highlights from Tuesday’s races:
Sessions, who in 2016 was the first Senate Republican to endorse Trump before joining his administration, is seeking his party’s nomination to challenge incumbent Doug Jones, the Senate’s most imperiled Democrat.
His top rivals include first-time candidate Tommy Tuberville, the former head coach of the Auburn University football team, and U.S. Representative Bradley Byrne.
Sessions was essentially tied with Tuberville, running slightly behind him with 32% of the vote compared to Tuberville’s 33% with all 67 counties reporting on Tuesday night. The two are expected to face each other in a runoff on March 31.
Trump, who forced Sessions out of the Justice Department after repeatedly criticizing his decision to recuse himself from the probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, has not endorsed any of the contenders.
Two incumbent U.S. representatives looked positioned to hold off primary challengers.
Democrat Henry Cuellar, who represents a district along the Mexican border, drew a challenge from Jessica Cisneros, a liberal immigration attorney from Laredo, who has criticized him as too moderate.
Cisneros won the endorsement of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who in 2018 ousted a longtime New York City congressman in a similar insurgent challenge.
But with 70% of polling locations reporting, Cuellar held the lead late on Tuesday, with 53% of the vote compared with 47% for Cisneros.
Cuellar received backing in the contest from traditionally conservative interests, including business groups and an organization funded by one of the Koch brothers.
On the Republican side, longtime U.S. House member Kay Granger led challenger Chris Putnam late Tuesday. With 72% of polling places reporting, Granger had 57% of the vote versus Putnam’s 43%.
Putnam, who formerly held a local city government office, had contended that Granger had not done enough to support Trump.
Some 13 Democrats are jostling for the chance to take on Republican Senator John Cornyn. Air Force veteran Mary “MJ” Hegar led late Tuesday, with 24% of the vote. With 70% of polling places reporting, her closest opponent was activist Cristina Tzintzun Ramirez, who had about 14% of the vote.
Republican Senator Thom Tillis will face Democratic businessman and former state Senator Cal Cunningham in the race for a U.S. Senate seat in North Carolina. Tillis is considered vulnerable in the swing state, which has been trending more liberal with growth in the Charlotte area.
The race became more contentious in recent weeks after reports emerged that Republicans had purchased television advertisements boosting another Democratic candidate, state lawmaker Erica Smith. Republicans were accused of trying to boost Smith in a bid to prevent Cunningham, who is seen as a stronger opponent, from winning the nomination.
There is a multi-pronged fight for the Southern California House district formerly represented by Democrat Katie Hill, who resigned after admitting to having a relationship with a campaign staff member.
Six Democrats and six Republicans are running in California’s open primary to replace Hill. The top two candidates will advance to the next contest, regardless of their party affiliation. But if one candidate wins more than 50% of the vote on Tuesday, he or she will simply win the seat.
With 71% of precincts reporting Tuesday night, Democrat Christy Smith and Republican Mike Garcia appeared headed to the top two slots. If their leads hold, they will face each other at a runoff election in May.
In addition to Smith, who had 33% of the vote late Tuesday, Democrats seeking the seat included Cenk Uygur, founder of the liberal online news outlet The Young Turks. He picked up the endorsement of Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders and then lost it after Uygur’s past remarks about women and religious groups came to light.
Smith was endorsed by Hill and party officials.
The six Republicans running in the special election included George Papadopoulos, a former Trump campaign aide who was convicted of lying to the FBI as part of the investigation into whether Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election. Papadopoulos does not live in the district.
Garcia, a businessman and former Navy pilot, entered the race before Hill resigned, hoping to oust her in November. He had 26% of the vote as of late Tuesday night.
Former U.S. Representative Steve Knight, who previously held the seat, sought to return to Congress, drawing 21% of the vote as of Tuesday evening.
(This story corrects Cisneros’ city to Laredo in paragraph 9)
Reporting by Ginger Gibson in Washington and Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento, Calif.; Editing by Scott Malone, Peter Cooney and Richard Pullin
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