- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 10, 2009

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.

His Democratic challenger, lawyer Merrick Alpert, isn’t much of a threat, though he could inflict some damage if he draws a significant vote. A crowded Republican primary race is under way in which the front-runner, former Rep. Rob Simmons, led the senator in a mid-September Quinnipiac poll by 44 percent to 39 percent.

Others vying for the Republican nomination include businesswoman Linda McMahon, former chief executive officer of World Wrestling Entertainment, who has spent more than $2 million in the past three months; Waterbury state Sen. Sam S.F. Caligiuri; former Ambassador to Ireland Tom Foley; and libertarian businessman Peter Schiff.

Mr. Dodd, under fire from all sides, has already begun running TV ads touting his legislative accomplishments, but his approval ratings have plunged, and veteran political handicapper Stuart Rothenberg says that “even in this very blue state, the incumbent can’t take his re-election for granted.”

5. ILLINOIS — When Sen. Roland Burris was appointed by disgraced former Gov. Rod Blagojevich to fill President Obama’s open seat, Republican chances in this heavily Democratic state improved significantly. Mr. Burris chose not to run for a full term of his own, and the Democrats’ strongest candidate, state Attorney General Lisa Madigan, turned down White House pleas to enter the race.

That’s when Republican Rep. Mark Steven Kirk, whose political appeal reaches across party lines, entered the contest, which is now considered a tossup. Mr. Kirk, with $2.3 million cash on hand, has a number of rivals in the Republican primary, but lawyer and anti-tax activist Patrick Hughes is the only one who has raised any money ($340,000 going into October).

Polls show Mr. Kirk easily beating him in the party primary, although Mr. Hughes already has won some conservative endorsements. Mr. Kirk’s likely opponent in the general election is Democratic state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, who has ethical problems of his own that analysts say could weaken his candidacy. A Republican poll shows Mr. Kirk leading in a head-to-head matchup by 42 percent to 35 percent.

6. NEVADA — Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s plunging voter approval numbers have drawn nearly a half-dozen Republicans into their party primary race for the chance to take him on next year.

Among them: lawyer and businessman Danny Tarkanian; investment banker John Chachas; former state Assemblywoman Sharron Angle; lawyer Chuck Kozak; and state Republican Chairwoman Sue Lowden. With the state’s unemployment rate soaring to 13.2 percent, the second-highest in the nation, Mr. Reid, who had $8.7 million on hand going into October, is in trouble, and virtually every poll showed him losing to several potential Republican opponents.

Ms. Lowden is given the strongest chance of winning the Republican nod. A Research 2000 for Progressive Change Campaign Committee poll on Oct. 17 through 19 showed her leading Mr. Reid 47 percent to 42 percent. An earlier Mason-Dixon poll put her ahead of him by 49 percent to 39 percent.

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