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DSCC Walks Primary Sidelines

During his two cycles as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.) was considered a master of clearing or shaping primaries. But his successor in that job, Sen. Bob Menendez (N.J.), said Tuesday that he sees his role in such situations as more of a referee.

Though Menendez freely admitted he would prefer to avoid primaries so the party can focus on winning next year’s general elections, the reality this cycle is that the DSCC is dealing with three high-profile, open-seat primaries in Kentucky, Illinois and Ohio.

At a time when his counterpart at the National Republican Senatorial Committee has gotten some backlash from efforts to exert the national party’s influence in several primaries — most notably in Florida and Kentucky — Menendez seems to be treading lightly.

“We tell [primary candidates] we expect them to promote their interests vis-a-vis their accomplishments … focus on why the Republicans have not been good for the interests of people in those respective states and not to do Democrat-on-Democrat violence,— Menendez said during a meeting with reporters at DSCC headquarters Tuesday. “To the extent that people play out of bounds, we may get engaged in being referee and saying, ‘Hey, this is not useful, not helpful, inconsequential.’—

NRSC spokesman Brian Walsh argued Tuesday that part of the reason Menendez is taking a more hands-off approach to primaries than NRSC Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) is because Democrats are facing “far more serious primaries— than Republicans. However, the GOP still has more than a few primary headaches of its own, including what could be bruising fights in Connecticut and New Hampshire.

But one might wonder whether the increasingly contentious Democratic battle in Kentucky between state Attorney General Jack Conway and Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo might warrant some DSCC refereeing soon.

Two months ago, Conway’s and Mongiardo’s camps were trading accusations after Mongiardo’s team lambasted Conway for a controversial speech that he gave at the state’s Fancy Farm picnic and political rally.

The storm clouds seem to be gathering again in the Bluegrass State after an audio tape surfaced this week of Mongiardo bashing his top political patron, Gov. Steve Beshear (D). Mongiardo’s camp has refused to comment on the edited tape that was posted anonymously on the Internet.

Mongiardo spokesman Kim Geveden said he expects the committee to remain on the sidelines in the race. “The DSCC has assured our campaign that they’re not taking sides, that they’re going to be there for the nominee when it’s over, and we take them at their word,— he said. Geveden added that any involvement by the committee “depends on how desperate Jack Conway becomes.—

Conway spokesman Mark Riddle said he expects the primary to be more about Kentucky’s future than party politics.

“I think Jack’s record as attorney general speaks for itself,— Riddle said. “He is standing up and fighting for Kentucky. That’s what he’s focused on — not the tit-for-tat politics of the primary.—

Menendez tried to laugh off the increasing tension in Kentucky. “I’ve seen a lot worse,— he said. “I come from New Jersey, where there’s a lot more blood-shedding.—

Menendez also said the committee would not wade into the three-way primary in Illinois, where state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, Chicago Urban League President Cheryle Robinson Jackson and former Chicago Inspector General David Hoffman are running for President Barack Obama’s former Senate seat.

Giannoulias had banked $1.6 million by the end of June and has received the backing of key labor unions.

But national Democrats, including Obama, continued to court other candidates in search of their white horse. After several well-known Democrats turned down their overtures, the field settled with Giannoulias viewed as the frontrunner.

Menendez said that as long as the candidates play nice with each other before the February primary, he does not anticipate the committee will announce its support for any of the Democrats in the race.

“But at this point, we’re enthusiastic about the candidates who are there,— Menendez said. “And as long as they follow the same guidelines I just talked about, I think we’ll be sitting back at least for now.—

Menendez also said some of his party’s primary problems may take care of themselves.

“I think some of these primaries may very well dissipate before we get to the primary period,— he said.

For example, in Ohio, Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher has maintained a large fundraising lead over his Democratic primary opponent, Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner. Ohio was one of Schumer’s primary-clearing victories in the 2006 cycle, when he was able to muscle aside Paul Hackett so then-Rep. Sherrod Brown could have the Democratic field to himself.

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