The most interesting races to watch today are all west of the Mississippi River, as voters in 10 states cast ballots in primary elections while Arkansas Democrats choose their U.S. Senate candidate in a runoff.
In that Arkansas runoff, Sen. Blanche Lincoln is fighting for her political life — and possibly for her party’s Senate majority in the next Congress — against a challenger, Secretary of State Bill Halter, who nearly toppled her in last month’s primary. Halter has the strong backing of labor unions that are furious at Lincoln’s opposition to legislation that would make it easier for them to recruit new members.
Lincoln drew 44 percent in last month’s balloting compared to Halter’s 42 percent. But don’t be surprised to see Halter unseat the senator today. Runoffs often draw a low turnout, and labor’s ability to get its people to the polls should mean victory for Halter. Polls give Halter only a slight lead, but I suspect Lincoln will have a hard time even coming close to victory.
A Halter win today probably means a Democratic defeat in November, which would put Republicans one step closer in their difficult but not impossible quest to wrest control from Senate Democrats. Arkansas, like most of the South, leans Republican and conservative, which is a much better fit for Lincoln than for Halter. Even though Democrats have held Lincoln’s seat for 131 years, Republican congressman John Boozman ought to have a clear path to victory in November against Halter.
In Nevada, today’s primary will put Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on the November ballot, but that is pretty much where the good news stops for the Democratic leader. The health care overhaul that Reid championed is highly unpopular in Nevada, and polls show that any of the leading Republican challengers would handily beat Reid if the election were held today.
Businessman Danny Tarkanian, a former basketball player and son of retired coach Jerry “Tark the Shark” Tarkanian, is competing with former state Republican chairwoman Sue Lowden and former GOP Assemblywoman Sharron Angle for the right to oppose Reid. All three of the Republicans would currently best Reid in a head-to-head matchup, recent polls indicate. Lowden, a moderate, has led the Republican field in polls for most of this spring, but some recent surveys hint at a surge by the more conservative Angle, who is aligned with the state’s Tea Party movement.
Like Reid, California’s Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer is widely seen as vulnerable to a Republican challenge this year, if Republicans select the right candidate. Carly Fiorina, the former chief of Hewlett-Packard, is the best-known and best-financed, and appears to have the edge over her two rivals. But former congressman Tom Campbell’s relatively liberal social positions are more in tune with the state’s electorate and would make him the bigger threat to Boxer if he can get past the primary. Chuck Devore, a conservative member of the California Assembly, has the right-wing credentials that make him attractive to the core Republicans who vote in primaries, but this also makes Devore more likely to lose a general election contest with Boxer.
Although Fiorina has tacked to the right to try to appeal to the Republican base, Devore could still drain enough votes to let Campbell squeak past her today. If that does not happen, a match between Boxer and Fiorina will be an interesting contest for the fall, but one that Boxer ought to survive if she runs an effective campaign.
Another interesting California race is the Republican primary for governor. Former eBay CEO Meg Whitman is battling another wealthy Internet businessman, Steve Poizner, for the right to go against Democratic attorney general and former Gov. Jerry Brown. Current Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a socially moderate Republican, is term-limited. The governor’s race is critical both because of California’s dire fiscal situation and because the chief executive will play a role in redrawing the state’s 53 congressional districts after the 2010 census results are available.
In South Carolina’s Republican gubernatorial primary, favorite Nikki Haley has denied a blogger’s claim that she had an extramarital affair with him. The charge comes only a year after outgoing Gov. Mark Sanford admitted to his own dalliance with an Argentine mistress he has called his “soul mate.” Though South Carolina Republicans are a conservative crowd that tends to frown on hanky-panky, the allegations have not cost Haley her lead in the polls. She is favored over Rep. Gresham Barrett, state Attorney General Henry McMaster, and Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer.
Other states holding primaries today are Iowa, Maine, Montana, New Jersey, North Dakota, South Dakota and Virginia. Most of the significant races in those states are to determine candidates for seats in the House of Representatives, whose control in the next Congress also is up for grabs in November.
After today’s primaries things will get fairly quiet on the electoral front. Congress and the Obama administration will be free do what they apparently came to Washington to do: Strut in front of the cameras, point fingers at one another, and promise voters that the moon can be had on the cheap. They will also take a lot of vacation time, during which they will amass gobs of money for the fall campaigns.
And then, when Labor Day has passed and the public starts paying attention, the silly season will arrive in earnest.