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Primaries end with establishment on the defensive

By Dan Balz
Tuesday, September 14, 2010; 3:19 AM

The tumultuous primary season will come to a close on Tuesday with the potential for still more shocks to the political establishment. The question is what the upheaval of the primaries says about the prospects for November.

The story line of Election 2010 has seemed to change week by week. Candidates, consultants, pollsters - and political reporters - have described it at one time or another as a year of anti-incumbency, or anti-establishment, or anti-Obama. The power of the "tea party" has been measured (and mismeasured) and measured again. Republicans have been described as both resurgent and at war with themselves; Democrats as embattled and endangered, or outright doomed.

Out of all this, only a few things are clear. In the primaries, Republicans have borne the brunt of the anti-establishment fervor that has swept the country. But come Election Day on Nov. 2, say strategists in both parties, Democrats will probably bear the brunt of that anger.

The primaries have underscored a potentially yawning enthusiasm gap between Republicans and Democrats. Republican turnout in primaries often has greatly exceeded that of Democrats, signaling that GOP voters are far more likely to turn out in November and giving the party a decided advantage.

But fueling that enthusiasm gap is a tea party movement that has been both a blessing and a potential problem for the Republicans. Grass-roots activists on the right have shown little respect for the GOP leadership. Establishment candidates have found themselves on the defensive repeatedly and some are now on the sidelines.

(Interactive: Track Sarah Palin's endorsements)

"There is a big GOP advantage for a change, especially in comparison to the 2008 presidential primaries, when the Democrats had a huge edge," said Rhodes Cook, an independent analyst.

Cook called that a good sign for Republican prospects in November, but he also noted: "Many of the higher GOP turnouts came in places where the tea party challenged the party establishment, often successfully. And that is not a good harbinger for the GOP as it positions itself for 2012."

Tuesday's primaries feature a continuation of what has come before. In Delaware, a fixture in Republican politics, Rep. Michael N. Castle, is on the defensive in his bid for the Senate nomination.

A former governor and one of the most liberal Republicans in Congress, Castle is the clear favorite to pick up a seat currently held by the Democrats - if he survives on Tuesday. First, he must defeat conservative Christine O'Donnell, a perennial candidate whose prospects have been boosted by support from Sarah Palin, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and the Tea Party Express.

(More info on the Delaware Senate Race)

In New York, former representative Rick Lazio once looked like a sure winner in the Republican gubernatorial primary. Now he is being chased by political newcomer Carl Paladino.

In New Hampshire, former attorney general Kelly Ayotte is the establishment choice and once had the clear advantage in the Republican Senate primary. Now she faces stiff competition from Ovide Lamontagne, who claims to be the true conservative in the race.

In the scrambled politics of the Republican Party, Lamontagne enjoys the backing of DeMint, the anti-establishment rebel inside the Senate GOP caucus; tea party activists; and the conservative Manchester Union Leader. Ayotte, however, has the support of Palin, who calls her a "Granite Grizzly."

(More info on the New Hampshire gubernatorial race)

That seems a fitting end to a season of primaries that have provided repeated evidence of voter discontent with Washington and the establishment. The primary season began with expressions of anti-Washington sentiment. In Texas, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison challenged incumbent Rick Perry in the Republican gubernatorial primary and was soundly defeated.

Perry turned Bailey's long service in Washington into a negative, establishing a theme that played out repeatedly in other GOP contests. It cost Sen. Robert Bennett (Utah) his bid for re-nomination in the spring and helped defeat Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) in her primary last month.

On the Democratic side, Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) did not survive his party switch, losing in the primary to Rep. Joe Sestak. But some threatened incumbents survived - at least in the primaries. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) spent $20 million and crushed former representative J.D. Hayworth. Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) was forced into a runoff but won. She might not survive the general election, however.

By historical standards, not that many incumbents lost in the primaries. Four House members, three senators and one governor have been defeated, but only the number of senators' losses rises to historic levels.

But, Cook notes, more incumbents than usual have been threatened this year. By his calculations, more House incumbents have won by narrower margins than in the recent past. Establishment-backed candidates lost Republican primaries in Kentucky, Nevada, Colorado and Connecticut, and that has set off a debate between party strategists over the implications.

Democratic pollster Geoff Garin said the power of the tea party has the potential to intimidate Republican politicians into adopting their agenda. If Castle loses on Tuesday, he said, "Virtually every Republican will be looking over his or her shoulder and what could happen to them in the [next election]."

Republicans, unsurprisingly, see it differently. "On balance, the tea party has been a net positive for Republicans," said Whit Ayres, a GOP pollster. "It has clearly helped to generate those large Republican primary turnouts and the enormous enthusiasm among Republicans."

Democrats may disparage the tea party, he said, but polling his firm did for the Republican National Committee shows that a majority of independents look favorably upon the movement. "There's some fuzzy analysis going on in liberal quarters," he said.

Phil Musser, another GOP strategist, said the other positive aspect of the tea party activists is that they have not broken out as a third-party movement. "Tea partiers have settled comfortably within the boundaries of the Republican Party primary process," he said. "That's a big positive that was a question mark when the movement burst onto the scene a year ago."

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