While anti-incumbent zeal is stretching across the country and has already claimed Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, and Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-W.Va., as high-profile victims, next Tuesday's Senate primaries in Arkansas, Pennsylvania and Kentucky are more about party purification and personal opportunism than about tossing out the old bums.
The major story line of the night will be whether Democratic Sens. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania make it to the November ballot or join Bennett as lame ducks.
In Arkansas, the conventional wisdom script portrays Lincoln as in peril from a primary attack by Lt. Gov. Bill Halter.
Halter, touted as riding the wave of the future, is using social media techniques in a way Arkansas has never seen. Organized labor has rushed to his aide and helped him close the gap against Lincoln in recent polling. For all the hype, though, it appears the best Halter will be able to do Tuesday night is force Lincoln into a runoff if she doesn't top 50 percent.
In a memo Wednesday, Lincoln campaign manager Steve Patterson noted the millions of dollars labor groups and progressive organizations have poured into Halter's effort and boasted that Lincoln has 250 state-based volunteers reaching out to voters. "Lincoln campaign staff and volunteers have made half-a-million calls in recent weeks and are planning an unprecedented grass roots effort during the final weekend," the memo said.
Halter's campaign posted a job advertisement for field organizers just this week in the state's biggest paper, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The job description didn't call for Democrats or political experience, but for people with a passion for "worker and family issues."
A Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee official said that with more than $6 million being spent against Lincoln in a political climate hostile to many incumbents, "she should be dead." Instead, the official estimated that if there is a runoff -- something the third Democrat on the ballot, D.C. Morrison, might help bring about -- labor groups would be faced with spending another $3 million ahead of the June 8 date at a time when that money would be needed elsewhere.
"There's going to be a lot of egg on the face of labor," the official said.
On the Republican side of the Senate race, Rep. John Boozman might not be able to avoid a runoff, either.
Boozman tried to talk other Republicans out of the race when he was preparing to jump in, and some of them said they would. Still, he is one of nine Republicans on the ballot and was under 50 percent in recent polling.
Those polls showed Boozman leading both Lincoln and Halter in general election matchups, but Lincoln's $3.2 million cash on hand in late April trumped Halter's $558,000 and Boozman's $360,000.
In Pennsylvania, the focus is on Specter, who spurned the Republican Party because he feared he couldn't win a primary battle with former GOP Rep. Pat Toomey, only to find himself fighting for his political life against Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak.
Sestak has long maintained he is the real Democrat in the race and has run his primary campaign to take advantage of that message. Indeed, Democratic Party officials now claim they originally recruited Sestak to run against Specter when he was still a Republican, and suggest his surging poll numbers and fundraising ability show he might be a stronger candidate than Specter against Toomey in November.
Recent polls show the Democratic primary race is essentially even. Specter was ahead in one important category in late April -- money in the bank. Specter had $5.8 million to Sestak's $3 million. Toomey, not facing a serious primary opponent, had banked $4.7 million.
In Kentucky, both primaries have been bitterly contested. The Republican establishment has backed Secretary of State Trey Grayson, but he is trailing ophthalmologist Rand Paul, a favorite of tea-party activists. Paul has outraised and outpolled Grayson for much of 2010, though insiders backing Grayson claim the race is tighter than indicated in recent public polls showing Paul with a double-digit advantage.
On the Democratic ballot, strategists in Washington are nervous about the chances that their candidate, state Attorney General Jack Conway, can hold off a late surge by Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo. The latest poll showed a dead heat.
This article appears in the May 15, 2010 edition of NJ Daily.