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Upstarts bench GOP’s all-star team

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 11, 2010

DENVER | Less than a year ago, top Republican Party officials boasted of an all-star lineup of experienced candidates poised to breeze through their Senate primary elections and put the hurt on vulnerable Democrats in November. The roster included Charlie Crist in Florida, Jane Norton in Colorado, Trey Grayson in Kentucky, Rob Simmons in Connecticut and Sue Lowden in Nevada.

After Tuesday's primary votes, not one member of the dream team will be the Republican nominee in November.

Instead of rolling to victory, the GOP's well-groomed recruits have been sideswiped by insurgents, unknowns and dark horses, challengers whose failure to win the party's seal of approval was suddenly viewed by voters as a plus.

The results speak to a rising intensity among GOP-base voters, but whether the results will prove a problem in November remains to be seen. Democrats such as White House spokesman Robert Gibbs and Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine were quick to claim that the upsets in the GOP ranks Tuesday had only improved Democratic chances of holding vulnerable seats in Congress and the statehouses this fall.

"I think you would be hard-pressed to see where Democrats didn't have an extraordinarily good night and are faced with, quite frankly, candidates that are largely out of step with the states and areas that they wish to ultimately represent," Mr. Gibbs told reporters at the White House on Wednesday.

The Republican anti-establishment trend claimed more victims Tuesday. In Colorado, Mrs. Norton, the former lieutenant governor, lost to Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck, a "tea party" favorite, by 51.5 percent to 48.4 percent.

On the gubernatorial side, former Rep. Scott McInnis was narrowly defeated by little-known businessman Dan Maes by 50.6 percent to 49.3 percent. While Mr. Maes was backed by tea party activists, Mr. McInnis' loss likely had less to do with his status as the favorite of the party establishment than with his involvement in a highly publicized plagiarism scandal.

In Connecticut, pro-wrestling executive Linda McMahon, running in her first campaign, put a smackdown on a primary field that included former Rep. Rob Simmons, a moderate whom party leaders had seen as a good fit for the Democrat-leaning state.

"The support of the voters of Connecticut isn't bestowed by the establishment or the pundits or the media," Mrs. McMahon said after her victory. "It isn't a birthright."

GOP strategists said Democrats were trying to spin the primary results despite clear signs of Republican momentum ahead of the midterm vote.

Brian Walsh, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, noted that polls say Mr. Buck, despite his outsider status, will be a tougher challenger for Mr. Bennet than Mrs. Norton would have been. In Connecticut, Mr. Walsh noted, Democratic Senate nominee Richard Blumenthal's one-time 30-percentage-point lead in the polls has fallen to just 10 points, with the state's critical independent voter bloc trending toward Mrs. McMahon.

"If last night was as good for the Democrats as the White House and party strategists would have you believe, then we should all be left to wonder: What constitutes a bad night?" Mr. Walsh asked.

Democrats have largely managed to avoid this year's attack of the dark horse candidate, and Tuesday was no exception. Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, aided by President Obama's strong personal support, defeated his primary challenger, former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, while Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper coasted to victory unopposed in the Democratic gubernatorial primary.

Mr. Blumenthal, Connecticut's attorney general, won the Democratic nomination for Senate, and instantly became the front-runner in his race against Mrs. McMahon. Likewise, Mr. Hickenlooper is already polling far ahead of Mr. Maes and American Constitution Party candidate Tom Tancredo, who entered the race shortly after Mr. McInnis imploded.

One exception on the Democratic side this year came in Pennsylvania, where Mr. Obama's endorsement could not save Sen. Arlen Specter from a loss in the Democratic primary to Rep. Joe Sestak. Polls say Mr. Sestak faces an uphill fight against GOP nominee Pat Toomey, a former congressman who did not face a primary battle.

Braced for big losses this year, Democrats watched the unfolding political scene with barely suppressed glee. They contend that the success of these lesser-known GOP insurgents should bolster their chances in November, despite generic polls showing voters are more likely to vote Republican than Democrat.

Instead of Mrs. Norton in Nevada, Republican primary voters chose former state Rep. Sharron Angle to run against unpopular Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. In Kentucky, even the support of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell couldn't get Mr. Grayson past tea party favorite Rand Paul.

In Utah, incumbent Republican Sen. Robert Bennett couldn't even make it into the two-candidate runoff, with far less well-known Mike Lee, a lawyer from Salt Lake City, emerging as the party's candidate.

In a statement congratulating Colorado's Mr. Bennet, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chairman Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey said that Colorado Republicans "nominated an extremist candidate who joins the ranks of Sharron Angle, Rand Paul, and [Wisconsin businessman] Ron Johnson - all of whom are more concerned with imposing a strict social doctrine than with growing the economy."

Not all GOP voters are betting on the underdogs. In California, Republican Meg Whitman cruised to victory in the gubernatorial primary in June, while Carly Fiorina, another party-establishment pick, won a three-way Senate primary.

In Arizona, Republican Sen. John McCain enjoys a comfortable lead over former Rep. J.D. Hayworth, whose credentials as a tea party activist and a strong voice for the party's conservative wing haven't translated into support in the polls.

In Florida, however, state Attorney General Bill McCollum, the party's choice for governor, is locked a tight race with yet another newcomer, health care magnate Rick Scott.

Both Arizona and Florida hold their primaries Aug. 24.

Republicans acknowledge their hotly contested primaries may be messy - at one point, the Nevada Republican Senate primary had 11 candidates - but they also stir up voter interest. In Colorado, for example, 69,000 more Republicans than Democrats cast ballots in Tuesday's primary election.

Mr. Bennet, in fact, received fewer votes - 183,521 - in winning against Mr. Romanoff in the Democratic race than Mrs. Norton got - 197,143 - in losing to Mr. Buck in the GOP contest. The prospect that this is a GOP year has attracted more candidates and produced spirited primary fights for Republicans in state after state.

If those primary voters stay engaged for the general election, Republicans could find themselves with a huge turnout edge, said National Republican Senatorial Committee spokeswoman Amber Marchand.

"There's a lot of enthusiasm on our side," she said.

If voters wind up backing primary candidates with a few rough edges, well, that's their prerogative, she said.

"It's the choice of the voters. They made their decision, and we're going to be fully engaged in getting their choice elected," said Ms. Marchand.

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