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Reading The Elections

Big Senate Primaries Abound, But The Bellwether Race Could Be The Special Election For Murtha's Seat

To be sure, the general storyline in today's primary elections in Arkansas, Kentucky and Pennsylvania will be one of establishment/incumbent vs. challenger/insurgent. But the one race that might tell us the most about what to expect in November doesn't fit this mold at all -- the special general election to fill the late Democratic Rep. John Murtha's seat in Pennsylvania's 12th District.

While Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-1 in this district, these are not the types of suburban Democrats that have gotten all the attention in recent years. In this district adjoining West Virginia, Democrats are more of the shot-and-a-beer, socially conservative, working-class, small-town and rural variety -- precisely the constituency the party is having a hard time keeping. Not insignificant is the fact that this is the only congressional district in the country that voted for Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., in the 2004 presidential race and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in 2008.


Virtually all of the environmental factors are working toward the benefit of Republican nominee Tim Burns, but the GOP campaign message is disjointed and undisciplined, while the Democratic mechanics and message have been far more cohesive. In short, the race is close. If Democrats can pull off a win in the face of a stiff headwind, their case for keeping their majority is somewhat strengthened. If they lose, it says that even a flawed Republican campaign can win with a heavy wind at its back.

The state's Democratic establishment was saddled with backing Specter, but it opposed the prickly Philadelphian for a lot longer than it's backed him.

By contrast, Saturday's result in the Hawaii special election to fill Democratic Rep. Neil Abercrombie's seat will mean very little. All it proves is that even in a heavily Democratic district, you can't split the Democratic vote and expect to beat a Republican. This special election should be considered a five-month rental for the GOP. If they hold it in November, then they can have real bragging rights.


Another race to watch in Pennsylvania is the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate. Not everyone agrees, but it seems that Rep. Joe Sestak has caught up with Sen. Arlen Specter. No matter who wins today, either Democrat will have a tough time beating former Rep. Pat Toomey in the general election in November, although in any other year, Toomey might be an underdog.

While Sestak would carry considerably less baggage than Specter, this is not going to be a great year to be a Democrat in the "T," the area spanning from the state's northern border from Erie to Scranton and down the middle. The state's Democratic establishment was saddled with backing Specter, but don't expect the tears to last too long; Democrats opposed the prickly Philadelphian for a lot longer than they have backed him.

In Arkansas, while it appears that Rep. John Boozman will win the GOP nomination, we'll likely have to wait until June 8 to see who his Democratic challenger will be, as Sen. Blanche Lincoln and Lt. Gov. Bill Halter will likely go to a runoff. Lincoln is facing the anti-incumbent, anti-Democratic Congress wrath on the ground, but Halter's candidacy is funded from out of state, largely by organized labor and the liberal netroots.

Seemingly lost is that the state ranks 49th in union members as a percentage of all workers and 43rd in the Democratic presidential vote in 2008; President Obama captured just 39 percent of the vote. Still, Lincoln is getting hammered by Democrats for not being sufficiently liberal or supportive of labor. The victor of a runoff is anyone's guess. but odds of this seat staying Democratic are very slim.


Kentucky is one of the few states this year with competitive primaries on both sides of the aisle, though the GOP side is getting the lion's share of the attention. The populist and most conservative wing of the Republican Party, fueled in part by the Tea Party movement, seems to have gotten the upper hand in Kentucky, where ophthalmologist Rand Paul, son of Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, is now favored to beat the more mainstream Secretary of State Trey Grayson, who is backed by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. While polls have shown the contest very close, Paul is thought to enjoy a distinct advantage in terms of intensity of support.

Grayson's supporters are thought to be willing to squeeze in time to vote -- that is, if they're not too pressed by other priorities today. Should Grayson survive, it will call into question the strength of that conservative populist movement. McConnell has pulled out all the stops to help Grayson, but this wave appears to be too great for even the best Republican strategist on Capitol Hill to outmaneuver.

Don't forget to keep an eye on the Democratic Senate primary between Lt. Gov. Dan Mongiardo, who was the party standard bearer against retiring GOP Sen. Jim Bunning when this seat was last up in 2004, and state Attorney General Jack Conway. If Grayson wins the GOP nomination, he would be a strong favorite in November against either candidate. But if Paul is the nominee, the Democratic nomination matters and Conway is considered to be far more competitive. Mongiardo has led since the beginning of the race, but the primary has become much closer in recent weeks.

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