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Late Primaries Can Equal Big Headaches in Targeted Races

As House Republicans are drawing up their list of top Democratic targets in 2010, a familiar enemy awaits: the primary election calendar.

A handful of the GOP’s best takeover opportunities are in states such as Arizona, Maryland, Florida and New Hampshire, where late and crowded primaries have the potential to put the party’s nominee at a distinct disadvantage heading into the general election.

In addition to often leaving the party’s base fractured, late primaries can produce battered nominees with depleted bank accounts and only a few weeks to recover.

Last cycle, in what one GOP operative described as a “train wreck,— Maricopa County Treasurer David Schweikert won the Republican nomination with 29 percent in a six-way primary in early September in Arizona’s 5th district.

While Schweikert began to reload for the general election, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee unloaded television ads attacking him the same week. Schweikert was never really able to regain strong footing, and Rep. Harry Mitchell (D) — who was then a top target after knocking off a Republican incumbent in 2006 — easily won re-election, 53 percent to 44 percent.

Schweikert “never got out of the box,— one Democratic strategist said.

Mitchell is once again a top target in 2010, but Republicans face yet another late primary. Schweikert is running again, and this time he faces a primary against former LucasArts President Jim Ward.

Along with the financial ramifications of a late primary, the increasing emphasis on early voting is a challenge because it narrows the window between when the primary ends and the general election begins. In Arizona, next year’s primary will be Aug. 24 while early voting begins Oct. 7.

Republicans also have their sights set on freshman Rep. Frank Kratovil (D-Md.), who won in the heavily Republican 1st district last year with 49 percent of the vote. Kratovil benefited greatly from a bloody GOP primary fight between moderate Rep. Wayne Gilchrest and state Sen. Andy Harris. Harris won, but the fight left the party heavily fractured, both ideologically and geographically, with Harris burning many bridges in the Eastern Shore-based district. Gilchrest went on to endorse Kratovil, and Harris couldn’t match the Democrats’ spending on Baltimore television.

Harris is running again, but he may face state Sen. E.J. Pipkin (who came in third in the 2008 primary) or former state Del. Al Redmer in the primary. More importantly, last year’s primary was held Feb. 12 in conjunction with the presidential primary, but next year it will be Sept. 14.

Last cycle, the National Republican Congressional Committee in particular took heat for not getting more involved in primaries in order to get the strongest general election candidate. But in an age when candidates are eager to run against the establishment, there isn’t a lot the national parties can do to clear primary fields.

“The NRCC’s policy on primaries is that there is no policy,— one committee official said. At times in the past, the committee’s intervention has created exactly the opposite effect of what was intended.

One thing the campaign committees can do is grease the fundraising gears. Earlier this decade, the NRCC created special funds to raise money for its eventual nominees in competitive races with contested primaries. The accounts were a repository for money from other Members and for money that the White House helped raise to be transferred to the Congressional nominee after the primary.

For example, in 2004, then-Washington state Rep. Cathy McMorris inherited $200,000 after she won the GOP nomination on Sept. 14 in a three-way primary. The infusion of money helped her gain the 5th district seat over a self-funding Democratic opponent.

“Late primaries have to be managed,—one GOP operative said. Aside from setting up special accounts, Republicans try to prepare by making sure potential nominees have their general election media and mail plans in places, including research on potential opponents.

The DCCC prepares research on all potential GOP opponents, but instead of setting up generic fundraising accounts in certain races, the committee immediately puts its nominees on the “Red to Blue— program list in order to jump-start their fundraising and boost the candidates’ ability to collect Member contributions.

In addition to the Arizona race, the DCCC went on the air in New Hampshire’s 1st district almost immediately after former Rep. Jeb Bradley secured the GOP nomination in early September of last year. The committee’s spending helped boost Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D) to a 52 percent to 46 percent victory in November.

Two years before, Shea-Porter surprised both parties when she knocked off state Senate Minority Leader Jim Craig, the DCCC’s preferred candidate, and went on to defeat Bradley without support from the national party.

This cycle, Republicans look to be headed for another September primary to determine who will take on Shea-Porter. But Democrats will also likely have a crowded primary in the state’s 2nd district, where they are trying to hold the seat being vacated by Rep. Paul Hodes (D) to run for Senate.

The DCCC chose not to immediately flex its fundraising muscle last year in New York’s 26th district after Alice Kryzan (D) was the surprise winner of the Sept. 9 primary over the DCCC’s favored candidate.

Recent Republican successes in races that featured late primaries have often been circumstantial.

Last year in Kansas’ 2nd district, state Treasurer Lynn Jenkins beat former Rep. Jim Ryun in a competitive Aug. 5 primary. But Jenkins’ general election victory over then-Rep. Nancy Boyda (D) had more to do with the Republican nature of the district and the relatively inexpensive media markets there. Another big factor was that Boyda shunned all outside help, so the DCCC didn’t come in with its usual TV blitz.

Back in 2000 when Republicans enjoyed more fundraising parity (and were able to use soft money), the NRCC helped elect Ric Keller (R) in Florida’s 8th district by going on television and attacking Orange County Chairman Linda Chapin (D) three weeks before the primary. Keller finished second in the Sept. 5 primary and first in the Oct. 3 runoff.

But a late primary also helped foreshadow Keller’s loss in 2008. The Congressman’s 53 percent to 47 percent primary victory over an unknown candidate on Aug. 26 demonstrated that he had significant cracks in his base of support. He lost in November 52 percent to 48 percent to now-Rep. Alan Grayson (D).

Multiple candidates are interested in taking on Grayson in 2010, setting up what could be a competitive Aug. 24 GOP primary in the 8th district. Republicans could also see a crowded primary in the 24th district represented by freshman Rep. Suzanne Kosmas (D-Fla.).

Democrats are not immune to the negative fallout from late primaries, but with a significant majority in the House, they are less of a concern.

Democrats will likely see a competitive September primary in Hawaii’s 1st district, where Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D) is running for governor. Honolulu City Councilman Charles Djou (R) is hoping for a repeat of 1986, when Republican Pat Saiki was elected to Congress in the wake of a bloody late Democratic primary.

Multiple Democratic candidates are lining up to take on Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), including 2008 nominee Elwyn Tinklenberg, physician Maureen Reed and state Sen. Tarryl Clark. Democrats hope the party’s nominating convention winnows the field before the September primary.

Similarly in Colorado’s 4th district, Republicans hope that state Rep. Cory Gardner’s early fundraising and the district’s convention sorts out the GOP race before the Aug. 12 primary.