Earlier this year, the Democrats were widely expected to add seats in the Senate in the 2010 midterm elections, but double-digit unemployment, a fierce health care battle and record government spending and debt have soured the country’s mood and lifted Republican hopes of making a comeback.
That has boosted candidate recruitment among Republicans but also produced a string of party primary battles, in some cases pitting more conservative challengers against moderate-to-liberal opponents backed by the party establishment. Here are a half-dozen Republican primary races that are among those that bear watching:
1. FLORIDA — Republican Gov. Charlie Crist appeared to have smooth sailing for the Senate nomination earlier this year when Sen. John Cornyn, chairman of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, recruited him to run. But then former state House Speaker Marco Rubio, a charismatic, Reagan-style conservative, jumped into the race, attacking Mr. Crist as a tax-and-spend Republican who had embraced President Obama’s nearly $800 billion spending stimulus bill.
Mr. Rubio has not only ignited his party’s conservative base but also won support from “tea party” anti-tax activists from around the country who have made the race their next target.
His attacks have thrown Mr. Crist on the defensive, forcing him to plead his conservative credentials and deny recently that he ever endorsed Mr. Obama’s big stimulus plan. However, the anti-tax Club for Growth came out with a new video last week, showing Mr. Crist and the president at a rally in February to support the massive spending package.
Even so, a Rasmussen poll conducted Oct. 20 showed Mr. Crist leading his primary challenger 49 percent to 35 percent.
The winner will likely face Democratic Rep. Kendrick B. Meek, but analysts say Mr. Meek faces “an uphill fight” in the race to succeed interim Republican Sen. George LeMieux, serving out the term of the now-retired Mel Martinez.
2. OHIO — The Buckeye State has been running heavily Democratic in recent elections, but former Rep. and Office of Management and Budget Director Rob Portman is given a chance of keeping this open seat in the Republican column, though the race is very competitive.
The Democratic front-runner, Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher, has the support of Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland among other party leaders, and a recent head-to-head Rasmussen poll in September showed Mr. Portman and Mr. Lee locked in a dead heat.
However, before he gets to a general election race, Mr. Portman first will have to overcome wealthy car dealer Tom Ganley in the primary; early polls show Mr. Portman with a strong lead.
3. CALIFORNIA — Few if any political analysts think liberal Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer is in danger of being denied a fourth term, but this race is drawing a lot of attention because of former Hewlett-Packard Chief Executive Carly Fiorina’s candidacy, her star power and the millions she can pour into her campaign.
Mrs. Fiorina, a top economic adviser in Sen. John McCain’s presidential bid, has never run for public office before, but she impressed party pros last year with her strong defense of the Republican ticket and her broad knowledge of economic issues.
She is running against conservative state Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, who had just $145,000 in the bank at the end of September, but polls show the two tied in the race for the nomination.
A California Field poll on Oct. 6 showed Mrs. Boxer leading Mrs. Fiorina 49 percent to 35 percent.
4. CONNECTICUT — Five-term Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, embroiled in charges he received a sweetheart home mortgage rate from Countrywide Financial, remains the Democrats’ most vulnerable Senate incumbent, with his bid for a sixth term rated a tossup.