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Senate Primaries Are a Mixed Bag for GOP in 2004

One of the reasons some observers believe Democrats have an even chance of taking control of the Senate next year — a view that I do not share — is that the large number of Republican primaries allegedly will hurt the party’s prospects. [IMGCAP(1)]

In fact, there are two kinds of primaries: some that are likely to help the party’s eventual nominee and others that could damage the nominee’s prospects. The Republicans face both varieties of primary contests in 2004.

The Democrats have (or have had) primaries in three states with top-tier races this year: Illinois, Georgia and Florida. The Republican list is more than twice as long: Illinois, Georgia, Florida, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Alaska, Oklahoma and South Carolina.

Louisiana, with its open primary, is a unique case, and currently involves what is tantamount to a Democratic primary, since three Democrats are vying for a place in the runoff. The Republicans had a primary in second-tier California, and they face one in another longer-shot opportunity, Wisconsin.

If primaries were inevitably fatal to Senate candidates, then Peter Fitzgerald (R-Ill.), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), John Edwards (D-N.C.), Mark Dayton (D-Minn.) and Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), to name just a few, would not be in the Senate today. Each survived a competitive primary and went on to beat an incumbent officeholder who did not face a stiff primary challenge.

Some primaries, of course, do cause damage. Erskine Bowles probably was hurt by a multicandidate 2002 North Carolina Democratic Senate primary that was delayed until September. Not only was he forced to expend resources to win his party’s nomination, but the primary divided Democratic constituencies and some Democratic voters were slow to warm to his candidacy. Still, I doubt that Bowles would have defeated Elizabeth Dole (R) in the general election even if he had been able to avoid a primary contest.

More important than whether there is a primary is its timing and the quality of the candidates involved.

Oklahoma looks to be a potentially messy GOP contest, with three Republican candidates seeking the Senate nod. The party is divided between its Oklahoma City and non-Oklahoma City wings, and differences in style and on some issues (trade, for example) could produce a nominee unable to unite the party for the fall fight.

South Carolina is a similar situation. With four major candidates seeking the Republican nomination, the party risks being divided over geography, trade and personality.

Former Gov. David Beasley, the best known of the hopefuls, carries the most political and personal baggage. Rep. Jim DeMint comes from the northwest part of the state, the same general area that Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) also calls home. That’s a potential problem in a fall election, since many voters in the “Low Country,” which includes Charleston, will not like to see both Senators coming from the Greenville-Spartanburg-Anderson area.

Still, the South Carolina runoff is in late June, early enough for the party to come together and for the ultimate nominee to start raising cash for the general election. Oklahoma’s runoff is in late August, leaving less time for the nominee to heal wounds. Unfortunately for Republicans, the Democrats have strong contenders in both South Carolina (Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum) and Oklahoma (Rep. Brad Carson).

Sen. Arlen Specter’s primary in Pennsylvania is a problem because of the possibility that challenger Rep. Pat Toomey might pull off an upset. Specter would likely coast to re-election against Rep. Joe Hoeffel (D), who appears to be running another classically underfunded Democratic Senate effort in the state. But Republicans would have a general election battle on their hands if Toomey is the party’s nominee.

While all of those primaries could cause considerable trouble for the Republicans, primaries in Colorado and Alaska could help the GOP. In Colorado, where Attorney General Ken Salazar (D) starts out ahead, the GOP primary contest should help former Congressman Bob Schaffer and businessman Peter Coors raise their profiles.

A primary could be particularly useful for Coors, since it will provide him an opportunity to sharpen his message and candidate skills. If he wins, he could come out of the primary with considerable steam, much the way Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) came out of his party’s presidential race. And because both Republicans are relatively conservative and Coors is widely seen as likable, the primary could well serve to unite Republicans, not divide them.

In Alaska, where former Gov. Tony Knowles (D) is a strong contender, Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s only problem is her appointment by her father — and her father’s low approval ratings as governor. A primary challenge by former state Sen. Mike Miller will give some Republicans a chance to express their dissatisfaction with the governor, his apparent nepotism and his daughter. It will also give Sen. Murkowski’s campaign an opportunity to define her as separate from her father well before she faces Knowles.

Clearly, not all primaries are created equal. The GOP’s ability to retain, or expand, its Senate majority could depend on its ability to turn primaries from a possible liability to an ultimate asset.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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