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Are both parties pulling too far from the center?

Barack Obama’s presidency — and the GOP’s rejectionist response to it — are stretching politics apart like salt water taffy.
Senator Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) (C) speaks in Washington
The polls show a real race developing in Arkansas, though Blanche Lincoln is shoring up her position by taking a strong line on bank reform. Jonathan Ernst / REUTERS

At Democratic Party headquarters they’ve launched a “Palin’s Primary” website. The idea is to track the most “divisive” and “bloody” Republican 2010 House races — contests which find established GOP candidates being challenged from the farther right.

At Republican headquarters, meanwhile, they’re talking-up Democratic Senate primaries in Arkansas, Pennsylvania and Colorado, where moderates are facing contenders from the farther left.

Barack Obama’s presidency — and the GOP’s rejectionist response to it — are stretching politics apart like salt water taffy. With all the pulling power at the edges, the middle is getting thin. Over the next couple of months, we’ll get early evidence about whether the center still exists at all.

That evidence will come in the form of primaries and horserace numbers in a host of states. The first big wave comes in May.

These primaries come at a time when voters' distrust of Washington — and the politicians who inhabit it — is at or near all-time highs. A Pew Research Center poll recently revealed that nearly eight in 10 Americans don’t trust the federal government or think it can solve our problems. Those are Nixon era, Watergate-level, corrosive numbers.

"Primaries are a sign of party intensity," said Ken Spain of the GOP's House campaign committee, who scoffed at the Democrats' “Palin Primary” page and the idea behind it. "We have an embarrassment of riches this year, and the winning primary candidates will start out with an advantage in the fall because they will already have a connection with voters."

At the Republican grassroots, that distrust is amplified by inherent anti-government ideology. The result is a “throw-the-bums out” fervor, even if the “bums” are incumbent Republicans.

Among Democrats, the dynamic is different during scary times. They don’t trust the politicians either, but their response is to demand ideological purity and loyalty to the Obama agenda of government activism.

Each party is counting on the other pulling itself too far from the mainstream. My sense is that they are both right, which means that, after the November elections, Congress and the country will feel more divided than ever.

Here are some of the early contests:

Utah GOP Senate Convention, May 8
Sen. Robert Bennett is a conservative and has won three Senate elections, but he favors a pleasant, non-confrontational style (a no-no these days) and committed the sin of voting for the TARP bailout. As GOP grassroots efforts lurch to the right, he finds himself in danger of not being able to win 60 percent of the vote at the party’s nominating convention. That seems unlikely, since most of the delegates will be first-timers and a Rasmussen Poll gives him 37 percent support among GOP voters in the state. If he doesn’t get nominated at the convention, he’ll have to face the number-two finsher at the event in a June primary. That challenger could be Mike Lee, a former clerk to Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito.

Kentucky GOP Senate, May 18
No race better symbolizes the mood at the conservative grassroots movement than this one. Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republicans' Senate leader, chose Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson as the man he wanted to succeed retiring Sen. Jim Bunning. A fith-generation Kentuckian and cautious, photogenic politico, Grayson is a product of the McConnell machine and was supposed to be a shoo-in for the nomination. But he is trailing badly in the polls to Dr. Rand Paul, a libertarian (like his famous father Ron), an eye surgon and a Tea Party favorite. The Democrats hope Paul wins, on the theory that he is too far to the right to win the general election. They should be careful what they wish for.

Arkansas Democratic Senate, May 18
The mirror opposite primary to Kentucky is on the same day: Sen. Blanche Lincoln, one of the most conservative Democrats in the Senate, is facing liberal Lt. Gov. Bill Halter in Arkansas. In this race and others, labor unions and groups such as want the ouster of an incumbent they view as a traitor to Obama nation — even though they've also criticized the president for not living up to all of his own promises. The polls show that this is a real race, though Lincoln is shoring up her position (after some key “no” votes on health care) by taking a strong line on bank reform.

Pennsylvania Democratic Senate, May 18
Eighty-year-old Sen. Arlen Specter was a Republican for 44 years, until he returned to his ancestral party last year. But his GOP history was enough to create an opening for Rep. Joe Sestak to take him on in the primary. This race is less overtly ideological than it is one of insider vs. outsider, but Sestak has yet to take full advantage of the opening. The chances are good that a Tea Party conservative — Pat Toomey — could win in the fall, which would be a remarkable event in Pennsylvania, a last bastion of GOP moderates.

North Carolina Democratic House primaries, May 4
Three conservative representatives — Larry Kissel, Health Shuler and Mike McIntyre — are likely to win their party nominations on this day, but that is just the beginning of the story. Labor leaders, led by Andy Stern of the Service Employees International Union, are trying to mount third-party challenges to them as punishment for having voted against the Obama health care bill in Congress. “We would hate to see that happen,” said a staffer at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “We want to focus on the Republicans' battles, not ours.”