Voters go to the polls on Tuesday in 11 states in a series of primaries that will help fill out the November lineup in what is shaping up as a memorable midterm election year. The choices they make in this week's races will help determine the identities the Democratic and Republican parties present to voters this fall, when control of the House and Senate is at stake.
The most crucial contests Tuesday are statewide gubernatorial and Senate races in South Carolina, Arkansas, Nevada and California. The rest of the Tuesday calendar, looking at the map east to west, features elections in Virginia, New Jersey and Maine; Iowa and the Dakotas in the Midwest; and the mountain state redoubt of Montana.
"The Democratic brand has been losing luster," notes political analyst Bill Schneider. "But we're not seeing any surge of confidence in the Republicans." That's what the GOP hopes to change, while Democrats wonder if the power of the Tea Party is going to put a ceiling on Republican hopes in November.
Here are the main story lines:
The sunshine boys
They are touting themselves as comeback kids, but Republican Terry Branstad and Democrat Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. are no spring chickens. They aren't even summer roosters. Each man is seeking to return to a job he once held ’ the governorships of Iowa and California, respectively — and relinquished a long time ago. Branstad, who served four terms from 1983 to 1999, heads into Tuesday's GOP gubernatorial primary with a lead of 57 percent to 29 percent over his closest rival, businessman Bob Vander Plaats, according to a Des Moines Register poll taken June 1-3.
Democrats are already starting to go negative on the 63-year-old Branstad, which he said only points to his strength in November. "They don't want to run against me because they know my record. . . . " he said. "I think really they fear me."
In California, Jerry Brown has no serious opposition in the primary, despite having been away from the game even longer than Branstad. Brown served two terms in Sacramento as California's 34th governor from 1975-1983. Many voters in the Golden State have little recollection of Brown and have never even heard of his namesake, two-term Gov. Edmund G. "Pat" Brown. Some of those who do know Brown's pedigree will get the idea that, at 72, he is no longer the man with fresh ideas. Like Branstand, Brown has an answer for that:
"I understand politics and government,"he told Politics Daily's California correspondent Lou Cannon earlier in the campaign season. "I've seen a lot, I have a lot of loyalty to California. I have an independent turn of mind."
Republicans 'woman up'?
California, already represented in the U.S. Senate by two Democratic women, may have two female general election candidates from the Republican Party, which has never before nominated a woman to run for governor or Senate. This could change on Tuesday night. Two former Silicon Valley chief executives, Meg Whitman (e-Bay) and Carly Fiorina (Hewlett-Packard), are running strongly in their races.
Fiorina is vying for the chance to take on Barbara Boxer, while Whitman would face off against Jerry Brown for the governor's job. "When we win the primary on June 8th, then is when the real work starts because we're going to beat Jerry Brown," Whitman said this week. "Jerry Brown was already governor 35 years ago, and it was not a great run."
Polls show both Whitman and Fiorina are leading in their primaries.
In the neighboring state of Nevada, the two candidates who appear strongest in the three-person Republican senatorial primary are women, too: Tea Party favorite Sharron Angle and establishment candidate Sue Lowden. The winner will earn the chance to topple Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in the November general election.
South Carolina gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley is one of Sarah Palin's vaunted "pink elephants" — female conservatives endorsed by the darling of the Republican right. Haley appears to have weathered attacks on her virtue and a scurrilous ethnic slur. Going into Tuesday's primary, Haley is running ahead of a crowded (and male) Republican field with 43 percent, followed by Rep. Gresham Barrett at 23 percent, Attorney General Henry McMaster at 16 percent, and Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer at 12 percent, according to a Public Policy Polling survey conducted June 5-6.
In Arkansas, there is a spirited primary election (technically, it's a runoff) on Tuesday. This one features another female candidate, Democrat Blanche Lincoln, but gender isn't the issue as much as is "base politics." Arkansans have already demonstrated that they will vote for a woman for Senate -- Blanche Lincoln is the incumbent — but she has roiled liberals in Arkansas, organized labor and various other Democratic Party activists from outside the state in the last two years, particularly in her tepid approach to health care reform. These insurgents have thrown their weight behind challenger Bill Halter, the lieutenant governor.
Lincoln has countered with an Arkansas heavyweight she hopes will prove equal to the muscle of the unions and the likes of Moveon.org. The champ's name is William Jefferson Clinton, and he campaigned for her in Little Rock over Memorial Day weekend by calling out the "special interest" groups whose meddling (he said) would make it more difficult for Democrats to retain the seat in November.
Villanova political science professor Lara Brown told Politics Daily's Suzi Parker: "The object lesson that Democrats may gain from this should Halter win the primary and lose in November is that they would be better off distancing themselves from the unions rather than joining in their cause."
On the other hand, Matthew Kerbel, author of "Netroots: Online Progressives and the Transformation of American Politics," points out that the head-to-head mock polls show that either Halter or Lincoln will have their hands full in November with Republican John Boozman, and that so far, Lincoln doesn't really poll any stronger than Halter.
This electability argument has surfaced in California, where fiscally conservative but socially liberal Tom Campbell is now trailing Fiorina, even though most experts give Campbell a better chance than Fiorina of defeating Boxer. A third candidate, Chuck DeVore, is stressing his conservative credentials and seems to have pulled even with Campbell. Ideological purity is also a major factor in Nevada. Angle has energized GOP base voters with her uncompromising conservatism. Lowden and Danny Tarkanian, though they trail Angle in all recent polls, insist that they would be stronger in November against Reid.
But 2010 is an unpredictable year, and one of the things voters must decide is whether they want to hold their collective noses and vote strategically — or vote their hearts and feel good about themselves — at least until November.