By Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 5, 2010; A07
Former senator Dan Coats triumphed in Indiana's Republican Senate primary on Tuesday night, beating out two candidates who had sought to upend the longtime legislator by tapping into the energy of the national "tea party" movement.
Coats, who was heavily recruited into the Senate race by national Republicans, collected 39 percent of the vote, with nearly all precincts reporting. State Sen. Marlin Stutzman was second with 30 percent, and former congressman John Hostetter was third with 22 percent.
Stutzman's result came as something of a surprise, given that Hostettler was much better known around the state after spending more than a decade in Congress. But Stutzman seemed to benefit from the endorsement of South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, an emerging conservative leader. DeMint said that Stutzman had "exceeded all expectations with an unwavering commitment to conservative principles" despite coming up short.
Coats moves on to face Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D) in the fall election. Ellsworth, who has represented a southern Indiana district since 2006, will formally become his party's nominee on May 15 -- a process necessitated by Sen. Evan Bayh's (D) retirement. Bayh's departure came so close to the state's filing deadline that no Democrat was able to gather the signatures to make it onto the ballot, leaving the decision up to a group of party officials.
National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Tex.) sought to seize on that selection process as an issue Tuesday night. "Unlike the Democrat[ic] party bosses who plan to hand-pick their nominee this month without an open primary election, Republicans in Indiana have participated in a spirited, open, and inclusive primary contest over the last several months," Cornyn said. Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee communications director Eric Schultz retorted that Coats was a "deeply flawed candidate" and a "Washington lobbyist."
Indiana was one of three states that held primaries Tuesday.
In Ohio, Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher bested Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner to win the Democratic Senate primary. He will face former congressman Rob Portman (R) in November.
Fisher has struggled badly to deliver on the initial promise of his candidacy, but national Democrats insisted that a staff shakeup several months ago had led to a turnaround. Fisher also benefited from Brunner's inability to raise much campaign cash, which allowed him to run several weeks of television ads with no response from his opponent. Fisher begins the general election at a significant cash deficit to Portman, however.
In North Carolina, Secretary of State Elaine Marshall (D) and former state senator Cal Cunningham (D) are headed for a June 22 runoff after neither candidate broke 40 percent of the vote.
That result buys national Democrats a bit more time to assist Cunningham. The national party helped recruit Cunningham into the race under the belief that he was the candidate best equipped to beat Sen. Richard Burr (R), but he underperformed on the fundraising front and struggled to make up ground against the better-known Marshall. Democrats view Burr, who won the seat in 2004, as one of the most vulnerable Republican incumbents in the country.
The Indiana race drew the most attention of all the races on Tuesday's ballots because some cast it as a referendum on the power of the tea party movement. Coats's victory came after a surprisingly difficult primary campaign in which he struggled to adjust to Democratic attacks on his past lobbying work, and to deflect a statement he made in 2008 that he planned to move to North Carolina when he retired.
Polling suggests that Coats starts the general election as a slight favorite, although Democrats insist that the problems he encountered in the primary will be magnified come November.