There were primary elections in ten states yesterday, plus a runoff to fill a vacant U.S. House seat in Georgia. It is hard to find a compelling theme from the results, other then the emergence of female candidates for the GOP in statewide races. Below is a wrap-up of the key results.
California: The nation’s most populous state had the country’s most expensive primary race ever: the GOP fight for the nomination for governor. Meg Whitman, the former CEO of eBay, spent an estimated $80 million on her campaign. She won decisively, with over 60% of the vote. She will now face 72-year-old Jerry Brown, who already served as governor from 1975 to 1983. It will be difficult, to say the least, for Brown to run as the candidate of “change we can believe in.” Whitman will undoubtedly spend many more tens of millions in the general election campaign. Brown led by 6 points in the last pre-primary match-up with Whitman, but was below 50%.
The GOP nominated another female former CEO, Carly Fiorina (Hewlett Packard), to take on three-term Senator Barbara Boxer. Fiorina also won a decisive victory, with over 50% of the vote in a multi-candidate field. Boxer led by a similar 6-point margin over Fiorina in a recent match-up, but was also below 50%, a danger zone for an incumbent. In a year when voters seem to be seeking fresh faces and have been welcoming to non-politicians, the Republicans are offering a very different look to an electorate that has had a very significant gender gap in recent cycles, with Democrats winning by big margins among women voters. Another factor that may help both GOP candidates is the association of the Democrats with the public employee unions that have nearly bankrupted California, and several other states, with outlandish pay and pension plans, approved by Democratic-controlled state legislatures and governors in recent years. Critics of the Obama administration and its push to rapidly increase the size and control of the federal government may also be drawn to these two GOP contenders who have private sector experience.
All that said, California has become a solidly blue state over the last two decades, and is one of the nation’s first majority minority states. If Hispanics, angered by the new Arizona law, show up in large numbers in November to register their support for the Democrats, the party they perceive as more pro-immigrant, it could counter the enthusiasm advantage that the GOP seems to have nationally this year. At this point, I rate both races as toss-ups, perhaps slightly leaning Democratic. The GOP challengers will be well-financed but will have to deal with the money and ground game of the unions, who for the first time in decades see a threat to the sweetheart deals they have wrung or coerced from state and municipal governments. The GOP candidates have made the focus of their campaigns the condition of the national and state economies — the huge increases in government spending, record deficits, unfunded pensions, credit rating risks, and general mismanagement. These are far better issues to run on this year than the much more divisive social issues that have been more front and center in recent cycles in California and that have hurt the GOP, particularly among women voters.
Arkansas: Speaking of unions, they flushed $10 million away on a Democratic primary fight for the nomination for senator in Arkansas to demonstrate their anger at Senator Blanche Lincoln for withdrawing her support for card check legislation. The unions want more members, particularly in the private sector where their numbers have faded, and are fighting cutbacks to what they have already won in the public sector. More members mean more union dues. More dues mean more money to spend on campaigns to elect union-friendly politicians who will do their bidding. A vicious cycle one might say, especially for the taxpayers who eventually foot the bill for public sector employees.
No president has ever been more union-friendly than Barack Obama, as seen by the more than 20 White House visits by former SEIU President Andy Stern, who is now (hold your laughter) part of an appointed panel to come up with ideas to reduce the federal deficit. In Arkansas, the unions crossed President Obama, backing Lt. Governor Bill Halter’s challenge to Lincoln from the left. Lincoln led narrowly but failed to get 50% in the initial primary and won 52% in the runoff. In any case, she now has a huge uphill fight to retain her seat. She trails the GOP nominee, Congressman John Boozman, by over 20 points. That margin will likely close a bit now after the primary.
Lincoln has been selling herself as “tough on Wall Street” to attract the populist crowd. She campaigned as the more moderate candidate in a state that has become increasingly conservative in recent cycles (John McCain won by 20% in 2008). But all that money spent by the unions on a losing primary fight might have helped Lincoln in the general election battle in a small state with inexpensive media markets. If the GOP takes back the U.S House in 2010 and wins most of the close races, there may be lots of second-guessing and hand-wringing on how the money wasted due to union spitefulness in Arkansas might have helped save some of the seats that may turn over. As Michael Barone wrote today, the big unions were messaging the Democratic Party that they own them and that they should not be crossed on their policy agenda. I think Boozman will win this race, though the margin will not be as high as 20 points.
Nevada: In the same way that taking down Tom Daschle capped election night for the GOP in 2004, defeating Harry Reid would provide great satisfaction for the GOP and conservatives this year. Nancy Pelosi is not beatable in very liberal San Francisco, but Reid is vulnerable in swing state Nevada. Like other Western swing states (New Mexico and Colorado), Nevada shifted decisively to Barack Obama in 2008, giving him a 12% margin of victory. A few months back, Reid trailed all three of the leading GOP contenders for his Senate seat, usually by high single-digit margins. More recent polls have shown a much closer race, with some polls putting Reid in the lead. Reid has survived tough challenges before, winning in 1998 by fewer than 500 votes over now Senator John Ensign.
In yesterday’s GOP primary, tea party favorite Sharron Angle, a former state legislator and school teacher, won a big victory over Sue Lowden and Danny Tarkanian, the son of former UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian. Angle led Reid by 3 points in the final poll published before the primary. This race is a toss-up, and Reid starts out much better funded than Angle, though she won the GOP primary with a smaller campaign budget than her opponents. Angle will undoubtedly be attacked for some controversial positions she has staked out, particularly on social security, but she will have enthusiastic grassroots support behind her. Nevada has a large number of union members and a rapidly growing Hispanic population. Reid will need a high turnout from both (there is substantial overlap between the groups) to win in November.
There is one wild card that will help the GOP. There will be two Reids on the ballot in November, as Harry’s son Rory will be the Democratic nominee for governor. The GOP got the candidate it wanted to run against him, with Brian Sandoval easily beating current Governor Jim Gibbons, whose term has been plagued by scandals. Sandoval has run far ahead of Rory Reid in trial match-ups. The strength of Sandoval at the top of the ticket, and maybe too many Reids for one year on the Democratic side, may boost Angle’s chances. I rate the Nevada Senate race as a toss-up, with a very slight lean to the GOP.
South Carolina: Will miracles never cease? In South Carolina, a woman with two Sikh parents decisively won the GOP primary for governor, just missing the 50% of the vote required to avoid a runoff. Nikki Haley will be heavily favored to win the runoff and be the GOP nominee. She would then be favored to win the governors’ race in November. The GOP would then have two Indian American governors, Haley and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana.
Haley won key endorsements from Sarah Palin and former South Carolina first lady Jenny Sanford, and she likely won a very high share of the womens’ vote in the primary. Haley survived some scurrilous charges that she had committed multiple acts of adultery, all of which she denied. Her accusers included campaign aides to candidates running against her. This is a new low for South Carolina GOP contests, surpassing the whisper campaign against John McCain in the 2000 presidential primary for allegedly fathering a black baby out of wedlock.
Two GOP congressional primaries are also worth noting. In South Carolina 1, a strong GOP district in the Charleston area, Congressman Henry Brown is retiring. Tim Scott, a very conservative African American state legislator, led the field in the primary and will face a runoff with Paul Thurmond. If Scott wins the primary and the general election, the GOP will have its first black U.S House member since Oklahoma’s J.C. Watts and the first black Republican in the U.S. House from the South since the Reconstruction period after the Civil War.
In South Carolina 4, incumbent Congressman Bob Inglis trailed his challenger Trey Gowdy by 11% and will face a runoff. Inglis was attacked in this very conservative “upstate” district for his vote for TARP, opposition to ANWR drilling, and opposition to the surge in Iraq, among other areas where he was viewed as straying from the conservative reservation.
If there is a takeaway from all the races yesterday and in recent weeks, it is that the GOP looks like a far more diverse party this year than in prior years, with candidates such as Marco Rubio, Nikki Haley, Carly Fiorina, Meg Whitman, Tim Scott, Charles Djou, Joseph Cao, Sharron Angle, Joel Pollak, Allen West, and Linda McMahon. The critics of the tea party have accused it, unfairly I think, of being a hangout for old white males. In reality, some of the tea party-favored candidates have won this year, and some have lost, and most of their preferred candidates have not been old white men.