It's a bit hard to understand why multiple states would decide to call voters to the polls in the depths of the Dogs Days, but they are: Florida, Arizona, Alaska and Vermont are holding primaries tomorrow, while Oklahoma is staging a runoff for nominations not resolved in its July 27 primary.
We'll be covering Florida, which has attracted the most national attention lately, in a separate post tomorrow. In this roundup, we'll take a look at AZ, where there are several very competitive GOP House primaries; VT, where the Democratic gubernatorial contest is a multi-candidate scrum; AK, where a long-shot challenger to Sen. Lisa Murkowski will meet his fate; and OK, where two Republican House runoffs are occurring.
Not that long ago, national observers were licking their chops at AZ's statewide Republican primaries, with John McCain looking potentially vulnerable against former congressman and talk-show host J.D. Hayworth, and an unelected and little-known governor named Jan Brewer appearing poised for a return to obscurity.
That's all obviously changed. According to virtually all observers McCain is on the brink of a landslide win, benefitting from a huge financial advantage, some serious strategic respositioning to the Right on key issues, and several misteps by Hayworth. McCain will be a heavy favorite over the likely Democratic candidate, former Tucson city councilman Rodney Glassman. Meanwhile, the immigration issue has transformed Brewer from an accidental governor unpopular in her own party to a national conservative star whose endorsement is craved in other states, and a certain winner tomorrow. Brewer also has opened up a big lead in the polls over likely Democratic nominee, Attorney General Terry Goddard.
But AZ's crowded Republican House primaries feature three contests in districts where GOPers think they have a chance of beating incumbent Democrats, and one for an open Republican seat.
The race that's attracted the most national attention is probably in AZ-08, a Tucson-based district represented by two-term Democrat Gabby Giffords. A classic Establishment-Tea Party matchup involving former state senator Jonathan Paton, the early frontrunner, and Tea Party activist Jesse Kelley, is considered very close. Giffords is a veteran of two close races, and is building up her campaign treasury as Republicans squabble, but her opposition to the new AZ immigration law and votes for key Obama legislation have made her appear vulnerable.
In Phoenix-suburban AZ-03, where Republican John Shadegg is retiring, the early frontrunner was Ben Quayle, son of the former Veep from Indiana, but he is fighting to hold off self-funder Steve Moak. It's been a battle of self-inflicted wounds, with Quayle hurt by association with an off-color internet site (to which he occasionally made posts under a pseudonym inspired by a porn-star character in Boogie Nights), and Moak battling claims of conflicts of interest between non-profit and for-profit businesses.
In AZ-05, another Phoenix-area district, former Maricopa County Treasurer David Schweikert is so confident of victory that he's saving money for a general election against Democratic incumbent Harry Mitchell, but businessman Jim Ward remains financially competitive down the stretch.
And in the huge, largely rural AZ-01, dentist Paul Gosar is in a close race with 2008 nominee Sydney Hay for the right to take on freshman Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick. The incumbent beat Hay by a 56-40 margin two years ago.
Up in Alaska, the Republican Senate primary has drawn national attention as a surrogate grudge match between Sarah Palin and incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski, daughter (and appointee) of the incumbent whom Palin beat en route to becoming governor in 2006. Murkowski's actual opponent is former judge Joe Miller, something of a conservative protest candidate (he's been endorsed by anti-abortion groups and the Tea Party Express) against the incumbent. But Palin's gone after Murkowski avidly in the stretch run of the primary, not only attacking the incumbent in one of her famous Facebook posts, but recording robocalls for Miller. Murkowski has a vast financial advantage, and a loss would be a major upset.
At the other end of the country, in Vermont, no fewer than five viable candidates--four rated as even bets for a win, though there has been no public polling in this contest--are competing for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in this blue state where four-term (terms are still just two years in VT) Republican governor Jim Douglas is retiring. Early in the contest (before Douglas announced his retirement) the clear front-runners were former Lt. Gov. Doug Racine (who lost to Douglas back in 2002) and six-term Secretary of State Deb Markowitz, with Racine considered the more traditional liberal and Markowitz the moderate. Douglas' retirement drew other strong candidates into the race, including state senate president pro tem Peter Shumlin, credited with a key role in passage of Vermont's landmark gay marriage statute; former state senator Matt Dunne, a tech entrepreneur who also ran the national VISTA program; and state senator Susan Bartlett.
All five candidates have taken similar issue stands in a very civil primary with many debates. A key factor is that Vermont's well-established left-bent Progressive Party has decided against running its own candidate for governor, greatly improving the chances of the ultimate Democratic nominee. Though under-funded, Racine has the bulk of union endorsements, and appears to be splitting Progressive Party support with Shumlin. Markowitz has been in the race the longest, and has high name ID. Like Markowitz, Dunne is relatively well-funded. Shumlin is generally thought to have late momentum. And Bartlett will get enough votes to affect the outcome.
Perhaps the biggest X-factor in Vermont is turnout: this primary is in traditional vacation-time, and early voting levels have been very low. Vermont is an open primary state, with no party registration.
The winner will face Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie, a professional airline pilot with light official duties and a folksy, anodyne image as Douglas' deputy the last eight years. Dubie has positioned himself somewhat to the right of Douglas on cultural issues, opposing both gay marriage and abortion rights while disclaiming any interest in making such issues a priority as governor. In late June, Rasmussen showed Dubie holding a 47-40 lead over Markowitz, with much bigger, majority leads over the other four Democratic candidates.
Finally, in Oklahoma, there are two GOP congressional runoffs. The one with the most fireworks has been OK-05, for the seat of Republican gubernatorial nominee Mary Fallin. Political neophyte and church camp director James Lankford surprisingly led the primary, but former state legislator Kevin Calvey has been on the offensive in the runoff, trying to play off the national conservative focus on alleged domestic Islamic threats by attacking Lankford for saying he'd talk with representatives of CAIR (the Council on American-Islamic Relations). Calvey enjoys backing from the Club for Growth, and has also significantly self-financed his campaign, but Lankford has strong evangelical Protestant support and has reportedly been very effective in the utilization of social media.
By contrast, the Republican runoff in OK-02, where Charles Thompson and Daniel Edmonds are competing for a shot at Blue Dog incumbent Dan Boren, has been pretty quiet with very low spending. Thompson ran ahead in the primary, but Edmonds seems to have a slight advantage among Oklahoma's "true conservative"/tea party activists, so it could go either way. The battle-hardened and well-financed Boren will be the favorite in November in a contest that will serve as a good test of the strength of any Republican "wave."