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Mid-Term Morsels

A Commentary by Larry J. Sabato

Friday, June 25, 2010

On Tuesday, political junkies were treated to the latest in a seemingly unending series of primaries. Several critical statewide nominations were determined in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Utah. Our updates, written by the voters more than us, are below.

NORTH CAROLINA SENATE : The national political party hierarchies on both sides have had difficulty in this anti-establishment year in selling local activists on all their choices. The Tar Heel State gave us another example on Tuesday in the Democratic runoff for U.S. Senate. For a year, D.C. pooh-bahs have been pushing former state Sen. Cal Cunningham as a telegenic veteran who could take down U.S. Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) this November. Most of the Democratic top brass enthusiastically agreed with the Cunningham pick. Problem was, Cunningham was seen as too conservative by the actual Democratic voters who showed up in North Carolina’s very low-turnout election. They preferred Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, who finished first in the primary by a considerable margin, 36.4% to Cunningham’s 27.2%. With strong African-American support, Marshall cruised to a crushing victory in Tuesday’s runoff, garnering 60%. Republicans were delighted, and they had been hoping to face Marshall rather than Cunningham. The incumbent Burr, with a fat war chest of $5 million running in a GOP-leaning year, has a very good chance of breaking the jinx that has cursed this seat for decades. No incumbent has been reelected to it since 1968, when the legendary Sam Ervin (D) won his final term. In fact, this is the most unstable seat in the entire Senate. Nonetheless, we have long leaned it to Burr, and by the fall, we wouldn’t be surprised if our rating changes to “Likely Republican”. LEANS REPUBLICAN

SOUTH CAROLINA GOVERNOR : If politics is entertainment, then South Carolina has become Broadway. Who woulda thunk it? To no one’s surprise, state Rep. Nikki Haley roared to a massive victory in the GOP gubernatorial runoff against white-bread Congressman Gresham Barrett. Having come agonizingly close to an outright majority in the first primary two weeks ago, Haley crushed Barrett by 65% to 35%. (This surprised some state observers, who had predicted something closer to 55% for Haley.) As everyone now knows, Haley is poised to become the first female Sikh Indian governor of any American state (though she says she has converted to Christianity). The national party actually got the candidate it wanted here, recognizing the image-changing potential of a Haley governorship. Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, and a host of other party stars weighed in for Haley. As likely as her November victory appears today, Haley’s candidacy is not without risks. During the campaign two men involved in Palmetto State politics claimed to have had affairs with the married, “family values” Haley. The claims remain unproven, and Haley was given the benefit of the doubt. Should there be any further revelations, however, Haley could be damaged in the general election. The Palmetto State has been deeply embarrassed by its erratic outgoing Gov. Mark Sanford (R), whose hidden relationship with an Argentinean woman and irresponsible abandonment of his duties made South Carolina a national laughing stock. Sanford supported Haley, but so did his former wife Jenny; there was no question which Sanford’s support was more helpful. (In one of the oddest moments of the 2010 campaign season so far, both Sanford and his ex-wife showed up at Haley’s victory party, while infidelity-challenged Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign song, “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow,” played in the background. You can’t make this stuff up.) The Democrats have chosen a charismatic, moderate state senator, Vince Sheheen, as their nominee for governor. Every now and then, South Carolina voters will elevate a Democrat to the statehouse, but usually the Republicans have to be divided or scandalized. So far that isn’t true, and the national GOP will pull out all the stops for Haley. Barring further disclosures about Haley, we rate this one LIKELY REPUBLICAN .

UTAH SENATE:  Tuesday’s results in the Beehive State are an unalloyed victory for the Tea Party, as well as conservative groups like the Club for Growth and the website RedState.com. The biggest news unfolded at the Republican state convention in May, when three-term U.S. Senator Bob Bennett (R) was ousted in a grassroots rebellion of anti-Washington voters. Bennett finished dead third, and attorney Mike Lee and businessman Tim Bridgewater—both of whom had some substantial Tea Party backing—were sent into the party primary. Bridgewater had actually placed first at the convention, and nearly received the 60% of the vote needed for outright nomination. Therefore, he was considered a slight favorite in the primary. Bennett considered Bridgewater the more acceptable choice for his seat, and the more moderate elements in the Utah GOP coalesced behind him. By contrast, Lee is a fierce conservative, and he was championed by those who want a major shake-up in the Senate’s way of doing business. (GOP Senate nominees Rand Paul in Kentucky and Sharron Angle in Nevada benefited from similar intensity.) This contest went down to the wire, and was the closest statewide result in all of Tuesday’s primaries. Lee edged Bridgewater by 51.1% to 48.9%, a margin of about 4,000 votes. In one of the two or three most Republican states of the Union, Lee is all but guaranteed victory in November, and at age 39, he could serve for a long time in a state that normally reelects its incumbents. Since 1958, for instance, senators from Utah have served an average of 22 years—and no one has been as young as Lee. SAFE REPUBLICAN

Larry J. Sabato is the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

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