The Fix: Primary night hands wins to party establishment

By Chris Cillizza
Wednesday, May 5, 2010; 9:03 AM

1. The establishment wing of both national parties scored wins in Tuesday's Senate primaries in Ohio and Indiana -- and, to a lesser extent, North Carolina.

Neither former Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) nor Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher (D-Ohio) scored terribly convincing victories over their underfunded primary opponents but, in winning, they cleared a necessary hurdle and in so doing beat back challenges from their party's activist base.

The Indiana race drew the majority of attention as Coats struggled to placate the conservative wing of the party. But, those voters wound up splitting their votes between state Sen. Marlin Stutzman, who had the endorsement of South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint , and former Rep. John Hostettler.

Although DeMint praised Stutzman's campaign and the narrow margin by which he lost, it's worth noting that for all the energy generated by conservatives in the contest Coats ultimately prevailed.

A similar but much less high profile scenario played out in Ohio where Fisher beat out Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner for the Democratic nod. Fisher had the backing of state and national Democrats but Brunner drew support from liberals. Fisher managed to win but spent heavily to do so -- spending that means he will start in a deep financial hole against former Rep. Rob Portman (R) in the fall.

North Carolina's Democratic Senate primary posed more questions that it answered. Secretary of State Elaine Marshall finished first but former state Sen. Cal Cunningham kept her under 40 percent of the vote -- ensuring a June 22 runoff.

The question now before the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is whether they officially endorse Cunningham in hopes of catapulting him to a runoff win. And, even if the committee does make such a move, where will the votes of African American attorney Ken Lewis who finished third in the primary last night go?

2. Results in House races on Tuesday largely kept Republican hopes in a handful of competitive Democratic-held districts alive.

In Indiana, cardiologist Larry Buchson narrowly won the 8th district Republican nomination, preserving Republican chances of picking up the seat being vacated by soon-to-be Senate nominee Brad Ellsworth.

The loss of former Rep. Mike Sodrel (R) in the neighboring 9th was more of a mixed bag; Sodrel had held the district for a brief time last decade but attorney Todd Young, who won the primary, had argued that the possibility of a fifth race between Sodrel and Rep. Baron Hill (D) was a recipe for disaster for the party.

In Ohio, the victory by businessman Jim Renacci (R) means that Rep. John Boccieri's (D) first re-election race in the 16th district will be a tough one. State Sen. Bob Gibbs, the preferred GOP nominee in the 18th district held by Rep. Zack Space (D), led Fred Dailey by five -- yes, five -- with 94 percent of precincts reports.

North Carolina has a surprising dearth of competitive races but the one Republican target -- the 8th -- will head to a June 22 runoff between wealthy businessman Tim D'Annunzio and former sportscaster Harold Johnson for the right to challenge Rep. Larry Kissell (D) in the fall.

3. A poll conducted for former Congressional staffer Mark Critz (D) puts him eight points ahead of businessman Tim Burns (R) with less than two weeks left before the special election in the southwestern Pennsylvania 12th district.

Critz, the late Rep. John Murtha's (D) longtime district director, takes 45 percent to 37 percent for Burns, according to a Global Strategy Group poll obtained by the Fix. Critz has widened his lead from a mid-April Global Strategy Group when he took 41 percent to 38 percent for Burns. Pollster Jef Pollock described Critz's lead as "small but significant" in a memo detailing the poll results.

In a three-way race that includes Libertarian candidate Demo Agoris the result is largely unchanged: Critz 44 percent, Burns 36 percent, Agoris two percent.

The Pennsylvania special election is set for May 18 -- four days before an increasingly problematic special election in Hawaii where national Democrats have grown increasingly pessimistic about their chances.

Losing both races (in the space of four days) would almost certainly send a wave of panic through Democrats about their prospects in the midterm elections and with Hawaii heading south, the Pennsylvania race becomes that much more important.

Both national parties are spending heavily on independent expenditure efforts. The National Republican Congressional Committee has spent $728,000 on the race to date while the DCCC has dropped $472,000.

4. A new Quinnipiac University poll showed Sen. Arlen Specter's lead over Rep. Joe Sestak in the May 18 Pennsylvania Democratic primary race has narrowed to single digits.

Specter stood at 47 percent to 39 percent in the Q poll, a considerable change from the 53 percent to 32 percent lead the party-switching incumbent held in an early April survey.

Much of Sestak's gains are attributable to a statewide television buy that has increased his name recognition statewide. While nearly six in ten voters said they didn't know enough about Sestak to offer an opinion back in April, that number shrunk to 44 percent in this poll.

Specter, who has held a Senate seat in the state since 1980, is, not surprisingly almost universally well known by likely Democrats and broadly well liked (57 percent favorable/31 percent unfavorable.)

Sestak's rapid improvement affirms the ideam however, that Specter's support within his new party is decidedly soft and voters are willing to jump to a credible alternative. But, while Sestak still has considerable room to grow, it's not yet clear how Specter's television assault on his record will influence the race.

As we have written before, this race is far from over. Sestak's rise makes clear that while Specter has to still be considered a favorite to be the party's nominee this fall, it's far from a sure thing.

5. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) acknowledged the obvious -- throwing his endorsement to Secretary of State Trey Grayson in advance of the state's May 18 Senate primary.

"I rarely endorse in primaries but these are critical times," says McConnell in a television ad for Grayson. McConnell goes on to urge a vote for Grayson's "conservative leadership to help turn back the Obama agenda".

While McConnell officially endorsed Grayson Tuesday, it's been an open secret in Kentucky politics for the better part of a year that McConnell not only pushed Sen. Jim Bunning (R) out of a re-election bid but also recruited Grayson into the race.

Grayson has faced a stronger-than-expected challenge from businessman Rand Paul who has focused on channeling tea party anger in the grassroots into support for his campaign.

Most polls in the primary suggest Paul has a double digit lead but data released by Grayson's campaign earlier this week painted the race as a toss up.

McConnell's endorsement comes on the heels of Rep. Harold Rogers, a legend in southwestern Kentucky who has held his 5th district since 1980, threw his support behind Grayson as well.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company