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Key primaries today could have implications for control of the Senate

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

All right, people are voting in four states today, with marquee races in Maryland and West Virginia. The Senate contests there are some of the most critical, and here to talk about what's at stake is NPR's senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro. Hey, Domenico.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: All right, let's start with Maryland. What stands out about that Senate seat?

MONTANARO: Well, this race has really split Democratic voters and many in the party structure, actually. You know, most of the notable people in the Democratic elected establishment are behind Angela Alsobrooks. She's the county executive of Prince George's County, which is right outside Washington, D.C. She has endorsements of the governor, Wes Moore, Senator Chris Van Hollen, Congressman Jamie Raskin, among others. Here's Raskin endorsing her in an ad that's running widely.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAMIE RASKIN: I'm supporting Angela Alsobrooks because I want her on the floor of the U.S. Senate defending democracy and the right to vote for the people of America. She will make a great U.S. Senator.

MONTANARO: You know, Alsobrooks is a Black woman, and this is a state where about a third of the population is Black. In a Democratic primary, as many as half of voters have been Black in the past. And that representation is something that many of the other elected officials think is important, considering there's only one Black woman in the Senate currently, and she's not running for the seat this year.

CHANG: Right. Well, Alsobrooks is running against David Trone - right? - a wealthy congressman. Can you tell us more about him?

MONTANARO: Well, the biggest thing about Trone might be his pockets.

(LAUGHTER)

MONTANARO: He made his fortune as the owner of Total Wine & More. He's not been shy about spending on this race, more than $40 million of his own money mostly on ads like this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I have nothing against Alsobrooks.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: But I have a whole lot against Trump.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: A Democratic Senate may be the only thing that can stop Donald Trump.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: That's why I'm voting for David Trone.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: He's our best shot to win in November.

MONTANARO: And this really gets to the heart of what's happening in this race. You know, you can hear different voters there making an electability argument that Trone is best positioned to win in November. That usually wouldn't matter in a state like Maryland, which leans so heavily Democratic, but things are different this year.

CHANG: Oh, that's interesting. Why is that? What's the concern for the party?

MONTANARO: Well, whoever wins the Democratic primary is expected to face off against Larry Hogan, the former popular Republican governor. He's been pretty vocally anti-Trump. That puts this seat in potential jeopardy in a year when Democrats are desperately trying to cling to their whisker-thin Senate majority. National Democrats are worried about needing to divert resources from other races, which makes a candidate like Trone attractive because he can self-fund. Still, Hogan does have to get through this primary first, which is not open to independents, so he has tacked to the right, for example, on immigration.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LARRY HOGAN: As governor, we fought sanctuary cities. Enough is enough. Secure the border immediately.

MONTANARO: That probably raises some eyebrows from independents and Democrats who might have been willing to support Hogan in the general election.

CHANG: All right. Let's turn to West Virginia real quick now. Even though Maryland and West Virginia are neighbors, they could not be more politically different, right? And West Virginia now has a pretty important Senate seat, yeah?

MONTANARO: Senate Democrat Joe Manchin is retiring. Given the lean of the state, it's all but assured to be going to Republican hands this year. The favorite is Jim Justice. He's the state's current governor, and Trump has endorsed him.

By the way, the crowded race to replace Justice as governor has gotten pretty ugly. At least three candidates have gone up with ads attacking each other and trying to show who has the tougher stance against trans rights. It's really remarkable that this has become the focus in a state with one of the lowest K-12 education ratings. More than 1 in 6 people live below the poverty line. It really shows you that the culture war issues are what is animating the modern-day Republican Party.

CHANG: That is NPR's Domenico Montanaro. Thank you so much, Domenico.

MONTANARO: Yeah, you're welcome, as always.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILLIE EILISH SONG, "ALL THE GOOD GIRLS GO TO HELL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Domenico Montanaro
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.