May Southern Primaries Set Up GOP for Fall Battles

Two of the leading contenders are not Washington officials. Karen Handel is a former Georgia secretary of State, and businessman David Perdue is the former CEO of Dollar General and cousin of former Governor Sonny Perdue. In the most recent surveys, Perdue leads and Handel has moved closer. Kingston is running the best of the three House members, and leads in one survey out last week, which also shows him with the best favorable/unfavorable ratings of the candidates. Kingston has moved up, bolstered by a big ad buy from the Chamber of Commerce. Since none of the candidates will come close to securing 50% of the vote, a July 22 runoff among the top two in the primary will follow. Stuart Rothenberg rates the race Leans Republican, but until the nominee is known this is still a potential upset race for the Democrats.

In Arkansas, the GOP challenger to Mark Pryor has been known for months, as the field was cleared for Congressman Tom Cotton -- a military veteran, former McKinsey consultant, and a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School. The last Arkansas candidate with this kind of glittering pedigree (absent the military angle, of course) was Bill Clinton. Arkansas is a state that has been moving to the Republicans at a rapid rate. The party has won the last four presidential contests -- by big margins in 2008 and 2012 (20% or more each time) -- and took away a Senate seat from incumbent Blanche Lincoln in 2010 with a landslide victory by then-Congressman John Boozman.

The Democratic Senate incumbent -- first-term Senator Mark Pryor -- will be a stiff test for Cotton, whom many in the party see as a possible future candidate on a national ticket. The Pryor family, much like the Landrieu family in Louisiana, has been producing candidates who win elections in their states for decades. A few early polls gave Cotton a lead in the general election contest, and some pundits declared him the favorite. Pryor has done much better in recent surveys, suggesting this will be a tough, close battle through November. Both Cotton and Pryor will be formally nominated in the primary election on May 20.

North Carolina represents a big opportunity for the GOP. While Mitt Romney won the presidential contest by only 2% in 2012, the off-year turnout is likely to be more favorable to the GOP. The GOP primary to take on first-term Senator Kay Hagan has been a crowded affair, but Thom Tillis, the speaker of the North Carolina State House and a favorite of many party professionals, has opened up a big lead in recent polls and seems headed for victory. The key will be whether Tillis can secure 40% of the vote in the primary this coming Tuesday, May 6. If not, he will face a runoff against the second place finisher on July 15. At the moment, Tillis is right around the 40% mark, and given the number of undecided voters, he has a decent shot at winning the nomination.

Oddly for the candidate favored by much of the GOP establishment, Tillis’ head-to-head numbers versus Hagan have been weaker than those of some of his primary opponents, Greg Brannon, Mark Harris, and Heather Grant. Brannon, a Tea Party favorite,  appears to have the best chance to make it into a runoff if Tillis fails to hit the 40% level in the primary race.

In 2008 when she was elected over Elizabeth Dole, Hagan started behind, but then came on strong and won decisively. Her vote on Obamacare will hurt her in North Carolina, as will Pryor’s vote for the legislation in the Arkansas race. Since the bill got the minimum 60 votes needed to break the filibuster in the Senate, every Democrat who supported it can be singled out as the prime culprit for the legislation passing.

If a GOP wave builds in 2014 as it did in 2010, the GOP nominee is likely to hold the Georgia Senate seat, and McConnell may survive in Kentucky. Such a wave would also lift GOP chances in the southern pickup opportunity states of Louisiana, North Carolina, and Arkansas, all of which now look to be tight races to the end.