Only seven states have held their primaries thus far, so it may sound a bit like overkill to say that today's contests will be THE BIGGEST PRIMARY DAY OF THE YEAR THUS FAR.
But in this case it's not just hype. These contests have the potential to be significant. Here's what to look for:
This is the big one. In a year of supposed anti-incumbent and anti-Washington fervor, Sen. Arlen Specter is in serious danger of seeing his long career come to an end. It's not just that he switched parties; he really had no choice, as he would have been a certain loser to conservative Pat Toomey had he stayed a Republican. Back in 2004, Specter survived his GOP battle with Toomey by the skin of his teeth, and only because President Bush and Sen. Rick Santorum weighed in on his behalf. But many of the moderate and centrist Republicans who voted for him six years ago fled to the Democratic Party in 2008, and Specter knew that if he wanted to extend his career to a sixth term, he would have to make a similar exodus.
But just as he alienated conservative Republicans over the years with his support for abortion rights and independent ways, there are a lot of Democrats who remain angry with him for his votes on behalf of Bush Supreme Court Justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito, as well as his grilling of Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings dating back in '91. But when Specter switched to the Dems in April 2009 — all but giving them the much coveted (but ultimately less significant than advertised) 60th Senate vote — he was quickly endorsed by President Obama, Gov. Ed Rendell and the rest of the Keystone State Democratic establishment. Joe Sestak, a two-term member of the House from suburban Philadelphia, was not supposed to be a credible challenger; polls not long ago had Specter up by more than 20 points.
But Sestak has turned this once-rout into a too-close-to-call contest, mostly by reminding Democrats of Specter's GOP past; his commercials replay the Bush endorsement of six years ago. With neither candidate an especially warm or cuddly kind of guy, the outcome may be determined by how voters view Specter's 30 years in the Senate ... and whether his party switch will be seen as out of principle or self-preservation. Sestak clearly has had the momentum in recent weeks but Specter has the reputation of finishing strong. Turnout, as is always the case, is key.
This race does have the feel of an insider vs. outsider kind of contest, but ultimately it may be just about Arlen Specter.
In southwestern Pennsylvania, in the special election to replace the late Rep. John Murtha (D) in the 12th Congressional District, the candidates are Mark Critz (D) and Tim Burns (R). Critz is a longtime Murtha staffer; Burns is a businessman. Republicans hope a Burns victory in a district long held by the Democrats will be a bellwether for November, just as Murtha's initial victory in the Watergate year of 1974 proved to be for the Democrats that year. The district is strongly Democratic but culturally conservative; Murtha was less charitable when he described it in 2008, saying the area was "racist" but later apologizing and downgrading his caricature to "redneck." It's the only district in the country that voted for John Kerry in 2004 and John McCain in 2008. It is fair to say that neither Obama nor House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is especially popular in the 12th, and Burns is doing what he can to link them to Critz. For his part Critz — who opposes abortion rights, says he would have voted against the health-care bill and supports gun rights — argues his focus is less on Washington, D.C., and more on Washington, Pa.
Of all that is at stake today, this may be the one to watch the most. A Burns win could send a signal that the anger is real, the Tea Party influence is significant, and the GOP looks ahead to the general election with the wind at its back. A Critz win could tell the Democrats that they may not be in as big of a pickle as previously thought. Both sides agree the race is close.
Of course, that's how the two sides will spin it. It may ultimately mean nothing for the big picture.
If anyone misread voter disgust with politics as usual this year, it may be Mitch McConnell and the Kentucky Republican Party. McConnell, the Senate minority leader, correctly realized from the start that Sen. Jim Bunning (R) was going to be hard-pressed to win a third term, and did everything he could to force him to the sidelines. What he didn't realize is that by rallying behind Trey Grayson, the Secretary of State, McConnell's imprimatur made Grayson the "establishment" candidate — and gave a great opportunity to ophthamologist and first-time candidate Rand Paul, son of Texas Rep. Ron Paul. If there's one thing we learned about Tea Party supporters this year, it's that they have a deep-seated mistrust of all things establishment. It also shows the folly of early endorsements before checking with the party rank and file; NRSC chair John Cornyn (R-TX) similarly did that with an early stamp of approval on Charlie Crist in Florida, as well as Specter in Pennsylvania ... and we saw how well that worked.
By most accounts, Paul has a sizable lead over Grayson. If McConnell comes out of this primary wounded, one person who emerges with enhanced credentials is Sen. Jim DeMint. The South Carolina Republican backed Paul early, as he did in Florida with Marco Rubio and in Indiana with Marlin Stutzman, who came in a strong second to establishment choice Dan Coats in the May 4 primary. DeMint may not always pick a winner, but he has made it clear that polls and party backing are secondary to true conservative philosophy.
The focus on the GOP primary has obscured the fact that there is a serious contest going on with the Democrats between Lt. Gov. Dan Mongiardo, who narrowly lost to Bunning in 2004, and state Attorney General Jack Conway. One thing to watch, post-Tuesday, is which party will be quicker and more willing to unite.
The anger directed at Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) by progressives is real. They didn't like how she abandoned her support for the health-care bill's public option, and they don't like her caution and propensity for playing a balancing act on so many issues. They say she is a DINO — a Democrat In Name Only. The unions (notably the SEIU and AFL-CIO) and liberal/netroots groups like MoveOn.org have rallied behind Lt. Gov. Bill Halter. But until Halter got into the race, the attacks on Lincoln had been mostly from the right — that she is too liberal for Arkansas, a state that gave McCain 59 percent of its vote two years ago.
NPR's Wade Goodwyn had a piece on the race on "Morning Edition" today. In it, we heard from Janine Parry, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, who said that if nothing else, Halter's attacks on Lincoln for being too conservative may ultimately benefit her in the fall, when she's likely to face Rep. John Boozman (R) and the Republicans who say she's moved too far left for Arkansas. The other way of looking at it is, being pummeled from the left and the right, Lincoln may be too wounded to survive in November.
But first she'll have to win the nomination. While polls indicate that she maintains a seven-point lead over Halter, give or take, she may not break the 50 percent threshold to avoid a runoff. The presence of a third candidate, conservative businessman D.C. Morrison, is responsible for that. A June 8 runoff would theoretically give Halter more time to make his case against Lincoln. And with eight Republicans in the race, there is a possibility that contest gets extended as well. Running closest to Boozman on the GOP side is state Sen. Gilbert Baker.
Ah yes, Oregon, the forgotten child of today's primaries. There is a contest on the GOP side to see who will face Sen. Ron Wyden (D) in the fall, but few people outside the state — or inside, for that matter — are paying much attention to it.