- The Washington Times - Monday, May 3, 2010

Three battleground states that swung for candidate Barack Obama in 2008 are holding closely watched Senate primaries Tuesday that could solidify the Democratic Party’s gains or contribute to a Republican rebound in 2010.

Each of the states - Indiana, North Carolina and Ohio - went Democratic “blue” in 2008 after backing President George W. Bush in 2004. What a difference two years makes: Now Republican Senate candidates in all three races are leading the pack in hypothetical general election match-ups.

The Tuesday primaries usher in a busy May election season. Nebraska and West Virginia voters go to the polls May 11, followed by Arkansas, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Oregon May 18. Idaho caps off the month with its May 25 primary.

In Indiana, Republican voters must choose a nominee from a crowded field consisting of one old-timer and a rash of newcomers. The favorite is former Sen. Dan Coats, but he’s carrying some carpet-baggage. After serving 10 years as senator, he left office in 1998 and moved to Virginia, where he’s worked as a lobbyist. He also bought a home in North Carolina with the intent of retiring there, prompting his Republican rivals to paint him as a Hoosier gone bad.

Mr. Coats is getting a run for his money from the right. All four of his challengers have accused him of being a Washington insider and moderate. If Mr. Coats does fall, it would likely to be former Rep. John Hostettler or state Sen. Marlin Stutzman, both of whom have the better conservative bona fides. Also drawing votes are two lesser-known candidates, including a “tea party” challenger.

No matter who wins the Republican nomination, the party’s November outlook looks strong. All three of the top Republican candidates would defeat the Democratic nominee, Rep. Brad Ellsworth, in a hypothetical general-election match-up - even Mr. Hostettler, who lost his seat to Mr. Ellsworth in 2006. The Cook Political Report gives the race a “leans Republican” rating.

An April 29 poll released by the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics showed Mr. Coats ahead among GOP voters with 36 percentage points, followed by Mr. Hostettler with 24 percent and Mr. Stutzman with 18 percent.

In North Carolina, the GOP should be enjoying the advantages of incumbency in first-term Sen. Richard Burr. While he’s favored to win the primary, his low approval ratings have drawn a few challengers, notably businessman Eddie Burks. Mr. Burr’s seat is also reportedly jinxed: No incumbent has won re-election to the seat since 1968.

But if Mr. Burr is seen as beatable, things are even less settled on the Democratic side, which pits Secretary of State Elaine Marshall against Iraq War veteran Cal Cunningham and lawyer Ken Lewis. A recent poll by Public Policy Polling showed Ms. Marshall edging Mr. Cunningham, even though he’s the favorite of national Democrats, who see his war record bolstering his chances against a GOP opponent in the general election.

If no Democratic candidate reaches the 40 percent threshold, which seems likely, the top two finishers will face each other in a run-off June 22.

North Carolina went for Mr. Obama in 2008, the first time the state had broken ranks with the GOP since 1976. Analysts attributed the Democrat’s success in part to Republican complacency and a surge of black voters, neither of which is likely to factor into this year’s Senate race. The Cook Political Report gives the race a “likely GOP” rating.

In Ohio, the retirement of Republican Sen. George V. Voinovich has touched off a vigorous primary season. The Republicans are likely to nominate former Rep. Rob Portman, who was also President George W. Bush’s budget chief. Mr. Portman has been able to amass a comfortable war chest by running unchallenged.

His likely Democratic challenger is either Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner and Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher. Ms. Brunner is a favorite of the left, but Mr. Fisher has the fundraising advantage and leads in the polls.

No matter the outcome of the Democratic race, the general election looks like a squeaker in one of the nation’s pre-eminent swing states. A Rasmussen Reports survey released April 2 shows Mr. Portman clinging to a small lead over both Democratic rivals. A Quinnipiac University poll released April 29 shows both Democrats with a slight lead over Mr. Portman.

On the other hand, the Quinnipiac survey also showed that a majority of voters polled don’t know enough about the candidates to have an opinion. The Cook Political Report puts the race in the “toss-up” category.

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