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The Primary Concern

Contentious primary battles really can hurt a party’s chances of retaining a seat.

Reid: Backing Berkley big-time.(Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

photo of Reid Wilson
June 22, 2011

Republicans and Democrats alike rely on a favored talking point when they make the case that one of their vulnerable seats is safer than it seems: The other guys are going to have a nasty primary, one that divides their base while sapping resources and leaving a bruised winner.

It’s rarely the case that competitive primaries actually harm a candidate’s chances in a general election. In 2010, contentious Senate contests in Delaware, Colorado, and Nevada produced Republicans who eventually lost, but none lost because of their primary fights; in every case, Republican primary voters picked the least-electable candidate to advance to the general election. Strategists on both sides have little doubt that then-Rep. Mike Castle in Delaware, former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton in Colorado, and almost anyone other than Sharron Angle in Nevada would have done better against their Democratic opponents, no matter how ugly the primary became.

And yet, in rare instances, the spin is actually the truth, and bitter primary battles can hurt a party’s chances of keeping a seat.


Consider the case of David Schweikert, the former Maricopa County treasurer who first challenged Rep. Harry Mitchell, D-Ariz., in 2008. Schweikert barely outlasted another Republican amid ugly charges and countercharges. Schweikert began the general election with almost nothing in the bank; he lost by a 53 percent to 44 percent margin. Two years later, Schweikert bested two other strong Republicans by a wider margin in a notably friendlier primary. That November, Schweikert beat Mitchell by a 52 percent to 43 percent margin.

This year gives both Republicans and Democrats the opportunity to suggest the other side will face ugly feuds. And in many cases, those fights are already erupting.

Two years after the primary fight that left Angle as the Republican nominee, it’s Nevada Democrats who appear set to face upheaval. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the most powerful Democrat in the state, is marshalling his army behind Rep. Shelley Berkley, his close ally since Reid’s first election to the Nevada Assembly in 1968. But Byron Georgiou, a wealthy attorney whom Reid appointed to the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, is running.

Reid’s efforts to get Georgiou out of the race backfired. This week, Reid said he regretted appointing Georgiou to the commission, while an adviser leaked unflattering material to a local newspaper. That, Georgiou said, redoubled his commitment. “Far from being intimidated, the false attacks aimed at my candidacy have only served to fortify my resolve to stand against the unholy alliance between Washington and Wall Street,” he said in a statement.

The winner will face Republican Sen. Dean Heller in what will almost certainly be one of the tightest races in the year. Georgiou has already dumped $500,000 into his own race, raising the prospect that Berkley will have to spend big bucks just to win the primary. Any advantage for Heller is significant in a race likely to come down to a few key precincts in Henderson and Reno.

Republicans face a sticky primary in Florida, where several little-known but well-funded contenders are vying for the right to take on Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson. Polling shows none is standing out, though state Senate President Mike Haridopolos has had early fundraising success.

Florida is big enough and diverse enough that it virtually guarantees the worst kind of regional and ideological segmenting that can happen in a primary. Each of the serious contenders—Haridopolos, former state Rep. Adam Hasner and former Sen. George LeMieux—has tried to paint the others as insufficiently conservative. Newer candidates, like businessman Craig Miller and retired Army Col. Mike McCalister, have slammed the putative front-runners as the “Tallahassee Triplets,” insiders in a corrupt and lecherous state capital.

Making matters worse for Florida Republicans, the state is scheduled to hold its primary on August 28, 2012, just over two months before Election Day. That’s good news for Nelson.

The parties both find themselves in precarious positions in New Mexico, another state in which a Senate race should come down to the wire. In both primaries, Anglo candidates with strong political credentials face Hispanic candidates who may appeal more to the party’s base.

On the Republican side, ex-Rep. Heather Wilson is running after losing her bid for the GOP nomination in 2008. She faces Lt. Gov. John Sanchez, who is trying to portray the relatively moderate Wilson as insufficiently conservative. Sanchez’s goal is made more difficult by businessman Greg Sowards, who is criticizing Sanchez’s record.

Democrats face the prospect of choosing between state Auditor Hector Balderas and Rep. Martin Heinrich. Heinrich can raise money, and he has proven adept at holding a seat that was once a toss-up; in both 2008, when he won the seat initially, and in 2010 he beat out capable Republican opponents. But Balderas has roots in the Hispanic community, and Hispanic voters play a huge role in the state; in 2008, Hispanics made up 35 percent of the Democratic presidential primary electorate. The state is plurality-Hispanic, giving Balderas a wider opening.

Control of the Senate will be determined by a small handful of elections in 2012. And while arguing that bitter primary campaigns are likely to harm the opposite party’s nominee is usually a sign of weakness, this time, both Democrats and Republicans could have a point. How carefully they tend their own houses could wind up determining who gets a gavel.

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