Dems and GOP Could Suffer a Primary Backlash

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Danny Johnston / AP

U.S. Senator Blanche Lincoln speaks to military veterans supporting her re-election bid in Little Rock, Ark., on May 14, 2010

The proposition that the Tea Party could tear apart the GOP will be tested in primaries this week — nowhere more so than in Kentucky, where Tea Party darling Rand Paul looks set to knock out Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell's chosen heir, Kentucky secretary of state Trey Grayson. But the real story of this week's primaries and special elections may be the Democrats' intraparty war, as groups impatient — or disillusioned — with the Obama Administration take aim at incumbents.

While some of this week's races pitch progressive Dems against centrist Dems — Bill Halter versus Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas, for example — there's less to distinguish between other rival candidates. No one would have called Pennsylvania Representative Joe Sestak a progressive, but compared to Arlen Specter, who spent 28 years representing the GOP in the Senate, Sestak is more liberal. The preferences of the committed core could be decisive in Pennsylvania and Kentucky, where primary voting is limited to registered members of each party. But each party has to be mindful of the danger that if they nominate a candidate too far to the left (or right), that person may have trouble winning the support of independent voters in a general election. In the 2009 gubernatorial elections, Democrats lost independents by nearly a 2-to-1 margin in Virginia and by a 25-point margin in New Jersey. Since then, thanks to the passage of health care, surveys show the GOP lead narrowing: the latest Gallup poll shows Republicans winning independents 48% to 44%, inside the poll's margin of error. But in the following five key primaries, local candidates will make all the difference.

Pennsylvania Senate: During the 2008 Democratic primary, Arlen Specter watched with dismay as more than 200,000 registered Republicans and independents switched affiliation to vote in the Barack Obama–Hillary Clinton primary. Those voters were Specter's base, without which he might not be able to hold off the primary challenge of conservative Pat Toomey, whom he beat with just 51% of the vote in 2004. It was no surprise, then, that Specter instead followed his base, switching parties a year ago. But while he now has the backing of Obama, Governor Ed Rendell, the unions and the Democratic establishment, he's still trailing in polls to Representative Joe Sestak, a former Navy Vice Admiral backed by progressive groups like Polls show both Democratic contenders losing to Toomey, the presumed GOP candidate, Sestak by a smaller margin. The state's 200,000 committed swing voters hold the key, and the nasty primary fight between Sestak and Specter could strengthen Toomey.

Arkansas Senate: Blanche Lincoln is finding that the middle of the road can be a dangerous place. The moderate chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee has been under attack for months by progressive groups, unions and conservatives. Opponents on the left — outraged by her opposition to the health-reform bill — have spent millions bolstering her primary opponent, Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter, but Lincoln has consistently beaten him in polls. Still, while she's likely to win her primary, Lincoln faces an uphill battle against GOP front-runner Representative John Boozman. In fact, polls show Lincoln losing to any of the top five Republicans she could face.

Kentucky Senate: The descent of Kentucky's GOP primary race into mudslinging should have been a boon to Bluegrass Democrats. Instead, the two Democratic candidates are in a death match of their own. Polls find Lieutenant Governor Dan Mongiardo just barely ahead of attorney general Jack Conway in a nasty race that has focused more on travel expenses and drinking bottled water on the taxpayer's dime than on substantive issues. Conway enjoys the support of and has raised more funds than Mongiardo. Though observers believe both would beat Republican Rand Paul in head-to-head matchups, Mongiardo would have a tougher time of it.

Hawaii's First Congressional District Special Election: On Saturday voters must pick a six-month replacement for Representative Neil Abercrombie, who vacated his House seat to run for governor. Though the district is heavily Democratic, it's leaning Republican because its two Democratic candidates are splitting the vote. State senator Colleen Hanabusa, a progressive, has the support of the Democratic establishment and the local unions, but has taken a battering in the local media on issues ranging from her husband's business relationships to her record on legislative pay. The other Democrat, former Representative Ed Case (brother of former AOL CEO Steve Case) is a pro-business fiscal conservative. Democrats will get 60% of the vote between them, but the split will hand the seat to GOP Honolulu councilman Charles Djou. Dems hope to agree on a single candidate in November to reclaim the seat, but the loss, even briefly, of the President's childhood district will be a psychological blow.

Pennsylvania's 11th Congressional District: Pro-life Democrats got a wake-up call last week when 14-term West Virginia Representative Alan Mollohan lost his Democratic primary to a conservative challenger who criticized Mollohan's vote for health care reform. Pro-life groups are targeting even antiabortion Democrats who supported the bill, claiming that it provides for Federal funding of abortions. Pro-life 13-term Democratic Representative Paul Kanjorski is facing a similar challenge from Lackawanna county commissioner Corey O'Brien, an antiabortion, pro-gun conservative. Democratic strategists fear that even if Kanjorski wins the primary, he'll struggle to beat Hazleton Mayor Lou Barletta, a Republican who came within three points of him in 2008.

Dems have long said that their saving grace in 2010 is GOP disarray, but they are dealing with some disarray of their own amid a surge of voter anger at incumbents from both sides of the aisle. The extreme right and left are fired up and ready to go — in directions quite different from those preferred by their parties' leaders. And, if both parties get dragged farther to the margins, which way will the center go?