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Campaign season kicks off in earnest with primaries in 13 states in May

Former President Trump listens as J.D. Vance, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Ohio, speaks during a rally hosted by Trump on April 23, 2022, in Delaware, Ohio. Trump had announced his endorsement of Vance in the Republican primary the week before.
Drew Angerer
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Getty Images
Former President Trump listens as J.D. Vance, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Ohio, speaks during a rally hosted by Trump on April 23, 2022, in Delaware, Ohio. Trump had announced his endorsement of Vance in the Republican primary the week before.

Updated May 2, 2022 at 10:44 AM ET

Voters in 13 states will head to the polls in May, starting Tuesday with Ohio and Indiana.

This month's primaries and runoffs feature some high-profile names in states that could decide control of Congress, and will serve as a test of the power of former President Donald Trump's endorsements up and down the ballot.

There are lots of U.S. House races and other down-ballot contests to watch, but we put the focus on some of the top statewide races in each state. (We'll have more detailed looks as the individual primaries approach.)

May 3

Focus: Ohio Senate

Below, we put the spotlight on the Republican Senate primary to replace retiring GOP Sen. Rob Portman, which has gotten nasty and includes a heavy dose of Trump:

  • The race is between Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance, former state Treasurer Josh Mandel, wealthy investment banker Mike Gibbons, state Sen. Matt Dolan and former state GOP Chair Jane Timken. Trump shook up the primary with his surprise endorsement of Vance, who had at one point been staunchly opposed to him. Before that, the race had been topped by Mandel and Gibbons, who has spent millions of his own money on the race. 
  • That was highlighted by the near fisticuffs at a debate between Mandel and Gibbons. This week, though, a Fox News poll out Tuesday showed Vance getting a double-digit boost since Trump's endorsement, and he now leads the pack.
  • The endorsement led to a bitter split between Trump and the fiscally conservative group Club for Growth, which has continued to run ads against Vance, highlighting his criticism of Trump. The Club continues to back Mandel, who was the early frontrunner. That led Trump to reportedly send the group's head a text that was very direct, telling him the same thing those Ukrainians told that Russian warship.
  • Democrats feel if an extreme candidate is picked in this race, or if Republicans are divided enough, that they can have a shot at winning it, though it's a longshot at this point. Democrats expect their nominee will be Congressman Tim Ryan, who has had a more centrist message and profile in Washington. 
  • Republicans believe the early primary leaves enough time to leave the messy intraparty fighting behind and that the favorable national landscape will ultimately lead them to a win and hold this seat. 
  • May 17

    Focus: North Carolina and Pennsylvania Senate

    North Carolina Senate

  • This seat opened up because Sen. Richard Burr is retiring. Like in Ohio, this primary is the main event in this state, which Democrats hope becomes competitive in the general election. 
  • It's also another place where Trump's endorsement will be tested. The top contenders are Trump-backed Rep. Ted Budd and former Gov. Pat McCrory. with former Rep. Mark Walker polling third. Budd got a clear boost when Trump endorsed him and has the lead. A candidate needs 30% to avoid a runoff, which would delay the start of the general election campaign by two months. Budd has been hovering slightly north of that. 
  • The race has gotten nasty. Budd has accused McCrory of not being conservative enough, while McCrory ran an ad showing Budd's face over a pile of manure and linked Budd to controversial North Carolina Rep. Madison Cawthorn, who himself is facing several GOP primary challengers.
  • Democrats have coalesced around former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley as their nominee. She was the first Black Supreme Court chief justice in North Carolina history.
  • Pennsylvania Senate

  • This is Democrats' top takeover target given the retirement of Republican Sen. Pat Toomey. It's led to divides in the Republican and Democratic primaries, but the Democratic primary pales in bitterness compared to the GOP side. And the money being spent is staggering – more than $60 million in just the first three months of the year. 
  • Several Democrats are facing off, but Lt. Gov. John Fetterman has a wide lead in the polls over Rep. Conor Lamb and others. Fetterman has a blue-collar look with very progressive politics. Lamb has gone after Fetterman for skipping debates and has brought up a 2013 incident in which Fetterman pursued, shotgun in hand, a Black man who was running and who Fetterman suspected of being involved in gunfire nearby.
  • The Republican primary has seen lots of money spent and bitter attacks between TV doctor Mehmet Oz and wealthy former hedge fund CEO David McCormick. Oz picked up Trump's endorsement, much to the surprise of many in the MAGA base. 
  • Oz tried to use Trump's name and endorsement repeatedly in a recent debate, perhaps to excess, because it hasn't quite given him a huge lift in the polls. He's locked in a tight race with McCormick, followed by conservative commentator Kathy Barnette. Oz is now trying to prove his conservative bonafides with an ad showing him, what else, shooting a gun.
  • May 24

    Focus: Georgia governor and secretary of state

    Georgia is a hotbed of political activity, and these races have it all. The Senate race will be closely watched this fall because it's one of the top races in the country with Republicans hoping to flip the seat currently held by Sen. Raphael Warnock. The likely nominee is former NFL star Herschel Walker, who has Trump's endorsement, and he will be tested as a candidate.

    But the real primary battles are in two other statewide races – for governor and secretary of state. Secretary of state races don't ordinarily get much national attention, but they do in the age of Trump and his lies about ballot fraud. And Georgia was ground zero for his baseless claims. Both primaries feature pitched battles between Trump-backed and non-Trump backed candidates.

    Georgia governor

  • Brian Kemp is the current Republican governor, but after the 2020 presidential election, Trump made it his mission to unseat him. That's because Trump, of course, lost Georgia in the presidential election and Trump is angry Kemp didn't do more to overturn the results.
  • Enter: Former Sen. David Perdue. Perdue has gotten on the Trump train and made election fraud and the victimization of Trump the basis of his campaign. It's quite the shift for Perdue, who was the CEO of Reebok and was seen as the establishment's establishment Republican. His claims aren't true, and he's down in the polls. A survey out this week showed Kemp over 50%, which is key because a candidate needs to clear 50% to avoid a runoff a month later.
  • Kemp landed a strong retort of Perdue and Trump during a recent debate. Perdue accused Kemp of being a "weak leader" for not more strongly pursuing prosecuting people for voter fraud. Kemp responded that it's the job of the state attorney general to prosecute people and then hit Perdue with this: "Hey, weak leaders blame everybody else for their own loss instead of themselves." That's the advantage of being above 50% in the polls....
  • Another month of Republicans beating each other up would be music to Democrats' ears. Stacey Abrams – the former state House speaker-turned voting rights activist who lost narrowly to Kemp in 2018 – is the Democrats' expected nominee, and she could certainly use the time to rebuild her operation and support. 
  • Florida-Georgia line: Neighboring Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is positioning himself for a potential 2024 run if Trump doesn't, has gone so far as to say if Abrams wins, it will mean a "cold war" between the states.
  • Georgia secretary of state

  • Brad Raffensperger, who was the head election official in Georgia when Trump lost the state, is running for reelection. Trump wants him out. Trump got into hot water when it was revealed in a recorded phone call that he pressured Raffensperger to "find" him enough votes to overturn the election. Trump called the election a "scam" and said, "A lot of Republicans are going to vote negative because they hate what you did to the president."
  • Now, they'll get to see if Trump's pressure campaign to get Raffensperger out of office will work. Trump has thrown his support behind Rep. Jody Hice. Testimony to the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection revealed this week Hice played a bigger role in trying to overturn the election than previously known. A poll out this week shows them locked in a close race and likely headed to a late June runoff. 
  • Including Hice, an NPR analysis earlier this year found at least 20 election deniers running to control the top election official job in states across the country.
  • Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Corrected: May 1, 2022 at 10:00 PM MDT
    An earlier version of this story said that 14 states hold primaries in May. It's 13.