WASHINGTON -- An anti-incumbent, establishment-wary electorate goes to the polls today to choose nominees for a slew of state and federal offices, and the fates of prominent Washington lawmakers could be at stake.
In Nevada, Republicans will decide who will run against embattled Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in November, and a late surge by a Tea Party-endorsed candidate has Reid supporters believing the unpopular veteran Democrat could eke out a victory in the general election. In Arkansas, moderate Democratic Senator Blanche Lincoln is fighting for renomination in her own party, challenged by a more liberal contender backed by labor unions.
In California, Republicans will choose nominees for Senate and governor, with both races featuring strong bids by female corporate executives. Mainers went to the polls to choose nominees for governor, and opinion surveys ahead of the primary election showed no clear front-runners. And in South Carolina, Republicans are experiencing a sex scandal deja vu as they decides whom the party will nominate to replace Governor Mark Sanford, who was derailed by his own affair. Nikki Haley, the leading contender in the GOP primary for governor, also has been accused of having extramarital affairs, a charge she denies.
Nevada's Senate primary is the most closely-watched nationally, since the results will show the strength of the Tea Party movement, and could determine whether Reid keeps his job.
Sue Lowden, a former Republican state party chair, had been the front-runner in a crowded GOP field, and was considered a strong contender to beat Reid, who is suffering from low approval ratings. But in recent weeks, Republicans Sharron Angle, a former state legislator backed by Tea Party activists, has made a dramatic surge in opinion polls. Angle, who wants to close the Department of Education and phase out Social Security, would be easier to defeat in the fall, according to Democrats, who believe Angle's positions are too far out even for swing-state Nevada.
"I think they're as happy as anyone with a 38 percent approval rating can be,'' said Nevada-based political analyst Jon Ralston, describing the Reid camp's reaction to Angle's recent popularity spurt.
"Reid is still as unpopular as ever,'' because of his advocacy for health care overhaul, general support for the Obama agenda, and a perception that the leader has become a creature of Washington, Ralston said. "The only way for him to win is not to increase the love, but to lessen the hate,'' Ralston said. Running a campaign against someone who wants to get rid of Social Security -- a politically dicey suggestion in a state with many retirees -- is more appealing to Democrats.
In Arkansas, meanwhile, Lincoln is struggling to avoid becoming the third incumbent senator this year to be ousted in the primary by his or her own party. Utah Senator Bob Bennett was defeated for renomination in May, while Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter, who switched parties from Republican to Democrat last year, was bested in the Democratic primary last month by Representative Joe Sestak.
Lincoln was a target of conservatives during the health care debate, vowing to use a pro-overhaul vote against her in conservative Arkansas. But liberals were unhappy with her opposition to the public option, and recruited another contender, Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter, to run against her. Neither Halter nor Lincoln captured a majority of the vote in the May primary, and face a run-off today.
"Halter has proven himself to be a real economic populist willing to rail against Wall Street and the insurance companies,'' said Adam Green of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, one of the groups backing Halter. Green dismissed the notion that a more liberal candidate would have a harder time winning in November, saying Halter's populism would attract voters across the spectrum. Either Halter or Lincoln, however, would face a tough challenge from GOP nominee John Boozman, a congressman.
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.