Tuesday primaries: four crucial questions

The Tuesday primaries will be dominated by four key races in three states – Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and Arkansas. On election eve, here is the central question to each race.

Danny Johnston/AP/File
Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) of Arkansas (r.) joined fellow Arkansas Democrats Lt. Gov. Bill Halter (l.) and businessman D.C. Morrison in a debate in Little Rock, Ark., Friday in the race for US Senate.

Both Republican and Democratic establishment prestige is on the line Tuesday, as voters go to the polls in Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and Arkansas.

Here are four things to contemplate as the candidates make their final pitches Monday:

1. What will the race to fill Democratic Rep. John Murtha’s House seat in Pennsylvania tell us about November?

When Congressman Murtha passed away in February after 35 years in the House, conventional wisdom held that the Democrats would have a hard time holding onto this conservative-leaning district. But Democrat Mark Critz and Republican Tim Burns are neck and neck, as Mr. Critz has turned his time as a Murtha aide into a plus – ironic, given all the anti-Washington feeling out there. But Critz’s time as Murtha’s economic development director allows him to channel part of why Murtha was so beloved in his district: He knew how to bring federal money home.

Critz also gains from the competitive Senate primary race, which will turn out Democratic voters. (The Republican primary is not competitive.)

The stakes could not be higher for each party. If Mr. Burns wins – and the Republican wins in Hawaii’s special House race on May 22, as expected – the GOP can credibly claim momentum toward November and possible takeover of the House. If Critz wins, that assumption goes out the window, giving Democrats a boost of confidence and greater hope of keeping their House majority.

2. What will undecided voters do in Pennsylvania’s Democratic Senate primary?

With 16 percent undecided and 25 percent of the decideds saying they could change their mind, according to the latest Quinnipiac Poll, the race between Sen. Arlen Specter (41 percent) and Rep. Joe Sestak (42 percent) is too close to call.

Turnout will be critical. For Senator Specter, the ideal scenario is high turnout in Philadelphia and low turnout statewide. Analysts assume Specter will do better among black voters, who are concentrated in Philadelphia – Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell’s home base. (Governor Rendell and President Obama are firmly behind Specter.) Statewide, though, low turnout means undecided and marginal voters are staying home.

Typically, voters who are still undecided this late in a campaign go against the incumbent.

3. Should top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell take it personally that his chosen candidate is likely to lose the Kentucky GOP Senate primary?

The polls show political novice – and “tea party” movement favoriteRand Paul is ahead of state Secretary of State Trey Grayson, Senator McConnell’s recruit, by double digits. The only suspense, at this point, is which Democrat Mr. Paul will face in November, Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo or state Attorney General Jack Conway.

There’s no doubt the expected voter rejection of Mr. Grayson is an embarrassment for McConnell, but does it portend problems for McConnell’s future in Kentucky? Probably not. By the time he’s up for reelection again, in 2014, the 2010 elections will be a distant memory.

But just to be sure, McConnell compared himself to President Obama on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday. The current situation “reminds me of when the president went into Massachusetts, a state he carried by 26 points, and tried to elect the candidate running against Scott Brown,” McConnell said. “I don’t think anybody seriously thinks the president won’t carry Massachusetts next time.”

The situations aren’t exactly parallel, of course. But if nothing else, this cycle may end up proving that big-name endorsements are next to meaningless.

4. If Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) of Arkansas survives her primary battle, does she go into the general election battle-tested or battle-weary?

Probably the latter, given that she may not get the requisite majority of votes on Tuesday in her primary with Lt. Gov. Bill Halter. If she doesn’t, she will face a runoff on June 8.

Lieutenant Governor Halter, who is challenging Senator Lincoln from the left, has helped cement Lincoln’s image as a centrist for the general election, if she gets there. But no incumbent wants to face a primary, which siphons money and energy away from what is expected to be an uphill battle in the general.

The front-runner in the eight-candidate Republican primary is Rep. John Boozman. The Real Clear Politics average of recent polls shows Congressman Boozman beating Lincoln by 20 points.


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