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Legacy Content / POLITISCOPE

Narrow Wins Leave Some Questions Open

Close Finishes In Key Primaries Provide Less-Than-Decisive Statements

May 5, 2010

In politics, as in other things, size matters. The larger the size, they say, the bigger the bounce.

I'm speaking, of course, about the Senate primaries that took place Tuesday in three key battleground states. Contests in Indiana, North Carolina and Ohio offered some early clues on how candidates will fare this fall in races that could decide which party controls the upper chamber next year. The biggest takeaway: Both parties face sharp divisions that stem from ideological differences and skepticism about (but not outright repudiation of) establishment insiders. Based on Tuesday's vote, those internal divisions appear deep enough to hinder both parties as they try to unify behind nominees this fall.

Amid low turnout in all three states, both parties got their preferred nominees in Ohio and Indiana, albeit by less than resounding margins; a June 22 runoff will determine which Democrat faces Republican incumbent Richard Burr in North Carolina. But the strategic importance of Senate races in all three states extends beyond November: The trio of states, all of which went blue in 2008 after extensive red streaks, form a central plank of President Obama's re-election strategy in 2012.

 

In the GOP primary to succeed Democrat Evan Bayh in Indiana, former Sen. Dan Coats (R) wobbled to a relatively narrow win over four rivals, including two who had drawn strong backing from national and local conservative activists. Coats, who was dismissed recently by state Sen. Marlin Stutzman (R) as a lobbyist who represents "more of the same," limps into a November race against Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D). Ellsworth has served four years on Capitol Hill, but in a sign of how hostile voters have become to incumbents this year, Democratic spinmeisters referred to him repeatedly Tuesday night by his former job title: "sheriff."

National Republican Senatorial Committee Chair John Cornyn, R-Texas, trumpeted Coats' win, saying it "makes Indiana one of the strongest pickup opportunities for Republicans this November." But Coats' failure to break 40 percent Tuesday also will prolong a debate among GOP insiders about the extent to which the party's establishment is losing influence over its rank and file. Another key question: How influential are Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., and Tea Party activists? Their respective candidates, Stutzman and former Rep. John Hostettler, drew more than 50 percent of the GOP vote.

In North Carolina, Secretary of State Elaine Marshall (D) fell just short of the 40 percent needed to avoid a runoff, forcing her into a head-to-head race against former state Sen. Cal Cunningham (D). The split decision means Democrats will spend the next seven weeks trained on each other instead of Burr. It's difficult to chart a roadmap to victory for Cunningham, the preferred candidate of Senate Democrats. His biggest challenge: Early polls showed black Democratic voters likely to move from attorney Ken Lewis, the third-place finisher, to Marshall.

The Democratic counterpoint to Coats' narrow win in Indiana was Ohio Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher (D), who won Tuesday but, despite a slew of key endorsements, including one from Gov. Ted Strickland (D), ran only 10 points ahead of Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner (D). Underfunded, Brunner sought to run a classic outsider, insurgent campaign that appealed to the party's left wing. The party's divisions appear likely to linger: When she was asked last weekend how much she planned to campaign for Fisher if he prevailed Tuesday, Brunner was blunt: She formed her hand into a big, fat "zero."

Brunner may have been joking. But the one laughing hardest Tuesday night was probably former Rep. Rob Portman, the GOP nominee, who couldn't have been happier with how Ohio Democrats split their vote.

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