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A Guide to the Summer’s Senate Primaries


Carly Fiorina, Blanche Lincoln and John McCain (WDCpix, Zuma Press)

To many Americans, the Memorial Day weekend signals the start of summer. For Senate election observers, it marks the onset of a season that will determine the fate of senators at risk of losing their jobs, and of outsiders looking to beat back party favorites. The summer Senate primaries kick off with a slew of tight contests on June 8 and continue through to a referendum on John McCain’s Senate tenure on Aug. 24.

Below, we’ve mapped out which Senate races to keep an eye on between now and Labor Day and why you should be watching:

  • NV: Harry Reid has been a GOP target ever since his rise to Majority Leader. Now, Republicans finally get their chance to oust him, six years after they toppled Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle. But first, the GOP must nominate a challenger, and multiple candidates have waging a contentious battle. Republicans in the race include: Sue Lowden, former state party chair; former state Assemblywoman Sharron Angle; and businessman Danny Tarkanian. The party establishment generally favors Lowden, but Angle, boosted by support from the Tea Party, has established herself as a major threat and has already drawn attack ads. Tea Party groups have urged Tarkanian to drop out to help consolidate support for Angle, but that would still leave a bitter primary on the GOP’s hands. While Republican infighting would typically signal good things for Democrats, Reid’s approval ratings (which sit well below 50 percent) mean that regardless of how internecine this primary ends up, Reid remains deeply vulnerable in November. Tea Party favorite Rand Paul defeated party-backed Trey Grayson in the Kentucky Senate primary on May 18; this race will be yet another test of the Republican establishment’s strength against the Tea Party insurgency.
  • CA: From a statewide standpoint, California remains a place where Democrats and moderate Republicans reign. That should be an asset for Sen. Barbara Boxer (D), who has served in Congress for nearly 30 years — first as a House member, then, beginning in 1993, as a senator. But so far, Boxer’s path to re-election doesn’t look to be an easy one. President Obama had already made two fundraising appearances for Boxer this year, an indication of where this race is ranked on the White House’s list of election priorities. Republican former Rep. Tom Campbell abandoned his gubernatorial campaign in favor of the Senate race in January, and he quickly established himself as a credible challenger to Republican candidate Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard. Chuck DeVore, a state assemblyman who has earned some conservative support, will also be competing in the June 8 GOP primary. Keep tabs on this race to see whether Fiorina can hold onto her recent lead over Campbell and DeVore.
  • AR: Arkansas voters on June 8 will decide between incumbent Blanche Lincoln and Lt. Gov. Bill Halter in the Democratic Senate runoff. In the May 18 primary, Lincoln held a narrow two-point lead over Halter, but the 44.5 to 42.5 percent tally meant Lincoln had failed to garner the majority necessary to win outright and avoid a runoff. History suggests Lincoln may have a tough runoff fight ahead. Even if she wins her party’s nomination, current polling shows that the general election will a steep climb. Tune in to find out if Democratic efforts to save one of their own actually pay off in Arkansas.



  • KS: It’s a battle between House members in Kansas. Republican Reps. Jerry Moran and Todd Tiahrt are forgoing House re-election bids to compete for the Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Sam Brownback (R), who is vying for governor. Moran and Tiahrt are both longtime lawmakers looking to distinguish themselves in the race by touting their conservative credentials. They’ve jockeyed for conservative endorsements and sparred on multiple issues, including a notable fight over taxes in May. But it’s no wonder this race has devolved into a slugfest. The GOP primary is the marquee race for the U.S. Senate in the state — Kansas voters haven’t elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1932. Watch this primary to see what it takes to win in a contest featuring two candidates who are closely matched in experience and ideology. The prize, in all likelihood, is a ticket to Washington.
  • CO: Senators typically have six years to establish themselves in Congress and build ties to their constituencies before they’re up for re-election. Not Colorado’s junior senator, Michael Bennet (D). Bennet was appointed in January to fill the seat of Ken Salazar (D), who was tapped as Interior Secretary. Bennet faces a primary challenge from Andrew Romanoff, a former state House speaker, who placed first among state delegates at the party’s May convention. But that convention was only used to determine ballot placement. If Bennet does survive the primary, a difficult general election contest still separates him from re-election. On the GOP side, former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton (R) faces a challenge from Ken Buck, a Weld County prosecutor who has the backing of Tea Party groups. Former state Sen. Tom Wiens dropped out of the GOP race in May to consolidate conservative support behind Buck. The GOP primary is one to watch because of the Norton/Buck battle. Will the Tea Party throw out another establishment candidate?
  • AZ: Further down the line is Arizona’s Aug. 24 primary. There, Sen. John McCain finds himself up for re-election for the first time since his failed bid for the presidency in 2008, and it appears that his time on the national stage has done little to improve his standing back home. McCain faces a strong challenge in the Republican primary from J.D. Hayworth, who served in the House from 1995 to 2007. In May, the back-and-forth between the candidates was focused on McCain portraying Hayworth as inept and Hayworth characterizing McCain as not conservative enough for his constituents. McCain held a lead over Hayworth in late May, but with several months to go before the primary, it’s difficult to tell whether that trend will continue. If Hayworth continues to fall in the polls ahead of this primary, it won’t be much of a race to watch. But if the former congressman keeps it competitive, this will be a major test of GOP infighting with a former presidential nominee front and center.

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