Senate primaries in four states set key matchups

Primary voters went to the polls Tuesday to finalize general-election matchups in some key contests that will help determine control of the Senate next year, including in Virginia, where Republicans chose former senator George Allen as their nominee.

Allen defeated a handful of more conservative candidates for the chance to take on former Democratic governor Timothy M. Kaine.

With the exception of the primaries in Maine — where six Republicans and four Democrats vied to take on independent front-runner Angus King in November — Tuesday’s contests, which also included races in North Dakota and Nevada, were not expected to be suspenseful. But the November races in these states will be crucial to Republicans’ chances of dislodging Democrats from their majority perch in the Senate.

“These are the states where the Senate will be won or lost,” said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Matt Canter.

Two of the states are held by Democrats, and two by Republicans. In three of the four — Maine, North Dakota and Virginia — the competitive November races were made possible by the retirement of popular incumbents who would have been strongly favored to win reelection.

The departures of Sens. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine), Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and James Webb (D-Va.), all moderates, come as the Senate has grown more polarized, and each has bemoaned the body’s increasingly partisan fights.

Republicans feel especially confident about their chances for a November pickup in North Dakota, a deeply conservative state where the GOP on Tuesday nominated Rep. Rick Berg to replace Conrad, the chairman of the Budget Committee, who is retiring after 26 years in the Senate.

Democrats nominated Heidi Heitkamp, a popular former state attorney general, and have promised a tough race in a state where the economy has fared dramatically better than in the rest of the country.

In Nevada, the Latino vote, a critical component in many of the new swing states of the Southwest, will help determine whether Rep. Shelley Berkley, who represents Las Vegas, can knock off Republican Sen. Dean Heller, appointed to his seat after the resignation of scandal-tarred Sen. John Ensign (R) in 2011.

That demographic edge is partly why the race offers Democrats one of their few chances for a Senate pickup in a year when they will be largely playing defense in Senate races nationwide. With one of the nation’s highest unemployment rates and a cratered housing market, Nevada’s economy will play an especially important role in shaping the contest.

Virginia, meanwhile, will present a key test of the impact of spending by super PACs, an unpredictable new force that both parties are grappling with nationwide. A flood of independent dollars is expected to sweep through the commonwealth in an effort to influence the grudge match between two titans of Virginia politics.

Democrats were closely watching Allen’s margin of victory over Chesapeake minister E.W. Jackson, Del. Robert G. Marshall (Prince William) and Jamie Radtke, former head of the Virginia Tea Party Patriots, to spot potential vulnerabilities for the nominee among the GOP base.

The most unpredictable of the states was Maine, where former governor King is running an avowedly independent campaign, working to take advantage of the moderate state’s displeasure with partisan gridlock.

King, whose name recognition swamps that of all the Republicans and Democrats who competed to face him in November, has declined to say which party he would caucus with if elected. Republicans say he would join the Democrats.

With about three-quarters of the vote counted, Democrats appeared to have nominated state Sen. Cynthia Dill to face King, while Maine Secretary of State Charlie Summers led among Republicans.

“This race begins tomorrow, and it would be a mistake for either party to boldly predict where it will be four months from now,” said Brian Walsh, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Republicans in all four states will work to link Democratic candidates to President Obama, confident that Obama’s approval ratings have slumped even in battleground states he won in 2008, such as Nevada and Virginia.

Democrats, meanwhile, will target Republicans’ plans to reshape Medicare to help curb deficits, as well as their refusal to raise taxes on the wealthy while proposing deep cuts to the social safety net. They saw a special election in Arizona on Tuesday to replace Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D), who resigned this year as she recovers from a near-fatal gunshot wound, as a test of the message.

Democrats hope that a strong showing by former Giffords aide Ron Barber, who defeated Republican Jesse Kelly, might translate into a boost for Arizona Democratic Senate candidate Richard Carmona.

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