Political junkies rejoice! There are twelve states holding elections today, including ten primaries, one runoff, and one special-election runoff. Among these, the contests that have drawn most national attention are in California, South Carolina, Nevada, Iowa, and Arkansas. The following is an overview of why these primaries matter and what you should look for in the results.
California: Mega-Money Chases Micro–Voter Interest
The Governor's Race
As I recently explained for TNR, citizens of the Golden State are in a very bad mood, even by the jaundiced national standards of Election 2010. But as much as Californians hate politicians right now, politicians are relentlessly pursuing them. By far the most aggressive of these, in terms of sheer dollars spent, are the two Republican gubernatorial candidates, Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner. Together, they've already blown $110 million to win the honor of opposing the famously diffident Democrat Jerry Brown in November. If all you knew about Whitman and Poizner came from each of their attack ads, you’d think the former is a corrupt Goldman Sachs crony who lives for a chance to open the borders to unlimited immigration, while the latter is a baby-killing, tax-loving lefty whose major recent accomplishment was to buy a bunch of souped-up cars for state bureaucrats. Perhaps because she’s outspent Poizner about three to one, Whitman has had the better of this nuclear exchange, and polls show that she overcame a rough patch in May to regain an insurmountable lead going into today’s primary.
Whitman will now have to sort through the wreckage and regroup, in an attempt to pose as an eminently reasonable, middle-of-the-road businesswoman who just wants to straighten out the books in Sacramento. She’s already burned through nearly half of the $150 million of her personal fortune that she vowed to spend in order to obtain one of the worst jobs in America. If you tune in to her victory party tonight, you may be deafened by the grinding of gears as she repositions her Death Star campaign for the general election.
The Senate Race
Whitman's doppelganger, Carly Fiorina, another (female) corporate executive who parachuted into California Republican politics from a spot on John McCain’s presidential campaign, has smartly managed to position herself for a big statewide primary win tomorrow without spending more than a fraction of Whitman’s loot. Late in the race, Fiorina did scrounge up several million for a well-timed ad blitz that pushed her past the early frontrunner, cash-strapped former congressman Tom Campbell. But it was probably a combination of Campbell’s fatal social liberalism (he’s both pro-choice and pro–gay marriage) and the patent non-viability of teeth-grinding true conservative Chuck DeVore that truly pushed Fiorina to the cusp of the nomination. And while she is, by all accounts, a more personable campaigner than eMeg, she’s also saddled herself with positions on abortion (hard-line pro-life) and immigration (she supports the hated Arizona law) that will hurt her in a general-election contest with Barbara Boxer—who I'm guessing will manage to squeak past the original cranky blogger, Mickey Kaus (identified on the ballot in Spanish as a redactor de blogs), in the Democratic primary. Indeed, Boxer was up nine points over Fiorina in the latest PPIC poll, and six points in the USC/LA Times survey.
The Lieutenant Governor's Race and Proposition 14
There are plenty of other fascinating contests on the California ballot tomorrow, the best of which will be a glamour match for the Democratic Lieutenant Governor's nomination between San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom, the favorite, and Los Angeles political heavyweight (and sister of the former LA mayor) Janice Hahn. There’s even a major ballot initiative worth watching: yet another effort to fix California’s polarization, via a switch to a “jungle primary” system that forces all candidates to run together, regardless of affiliation and face a runoff if no one wins a majority. The initiative seems to have become Arnold Schwarzenegger’s revenge on both major political parties—his PAC is the major financial force behind Proposition 14—and polls show it is likely to pass.
South Carolina: The Ghost of Lee Atwater
The Governor's Race
South Carolina is the original home of Republican dirty tricks and skullduggery, having schooled a young Lee Atwater in the art of character assassination through pungent innuendo, and it remains a nest of vipers today. (Remember John McCain's "love child" from the 2000 campaign? Or the 2008 attacks on Mitt Romney's religion and Fred Thompson's love life?) This year, it hasn't disappointed. Just as State Representative Nikki Haley, a hard-core conservative who began the campaign as an underfinanced protégé of disgraced Governor Mark Sanford, began to ascend in the four-candidate pack, a blogger/consultant named Will Folks—a former Sanford and Haley staffer who had been promoting her candidacy for months—came forward to claim that he’d had an affair with the very-married and very “pro-family” Haley in 2009. As Folks trickled out circumstantial “evidence” of the affair on his blog FITSnews.com (slogan: "Unfair. Imbalanced."), Haley’s allies accused him of having been bought by rival campaigns, while Haley herself denied everything. In fact, she actually managed to prosper, framing the scandal as another sign that she's being hit with dirty tricks, because she's a principled right-winger seeking to overturn the Dixiecrat-flavored old boys' network of Palmetto State GOP politics. Sarah Palin and Erick Erickson rushed to her defense.
And then a second political consultant, who was a top aide to rival candidate and Lieutenant Governor Andre Bauer, claimed he had also had a fling with Haley. This was followed shortly by a bizarre diatribe by Haley’s own state senator, a Bauer ally with the fine Southern political name of Jake Knotts, who spent much of an Internet interview denigrating Haley, a second-generation Indian-American, by calling her a “raghead,” he said, just like Barack Obama. You really just can’t make this stuff up.
These events have prompted an even larger pro-Haley backlash, which has given her a decent chance of winning the nomination without a runoff (and if she doesn't get that many votes, it appears her most likely runoff opponent will be Congressman Gresham Barrett, an Upcountry favorite whose cross to bear is an ignominious vote for TARP). Still, Haley is now promising to quit the race—or if elected, the governorship itself—if it is proven she did fool around. This is making Republicans nervous, particularly since Folks is still hinting he has definitive evidence of an affair, and it could possibly scare away primary voters at the last second.
Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, state legislator Vincent Sheheen, who’s run a well-financed, issues-oriented campaign, appears to be a favorite against the state's singular Democratic official who has been elected statewide, school superintendent Jim Rex. (African American State Senator Robert Ford probably can't win, but he potentially holds enough support to force a runoff.) If Sheheen wins and his less-nonsense style of politics somehow catches on in the general, it would certainly chasten South Carolina Republicans into behaving better, and maybe even debating what state government should actually do with its time and money.
Iowa: Setting the Stage for 2012
The Governor's Race
No matter how parochial Iowa's primary campaigns are, they tend to have implications for the next presidential nomination. This year, the ultimate establishment Republican and Mitt Romney associate, former four-term governor Terry Branstad, was the early frontrunner in the race to face highly vulnerable Democratic incumbent Governor Chet Culver. His opponent is Mike Huckabee’s guy in Iowa, Bob Vander Plaats, so the meaning of the contest for 2012 has been fairly obvious.
Despite being the early favorite, Branstad's candidacy was once deemed fragile. To understand this, you have to appreciate the fact that Iowa’s conservatives have been obsessively transfixed with last year’s state Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriages. And Terry Branstad appointed two of the judges that delivered that unanimous ruling, compounding a problem he already had with the Christian Right, because he chose a pro-choice lieutenant governor for his last two terms. Early on, one major Iowa social conservative group announced it would not support Branstad if he won the nomination.
To capitalize, Vander Plaats promised to overturn the same-sex marriage ruling by executive order—a legally dubious idea which even conservative lawyers mocked—but even so, a recent PPP poll showed Branstad with less than a majority of the vote. The media duly decided that the "true conservative" had momentum and, given that in 2008 Branstad’s guy Romney was trounced by Vander Plaats’s guy Huckabee, despite a huge financial advantage, an upset seemed entirely possible.
But in the last few days, Vander Plaats’s campaign has received two huge blows: an out-of-the-blue endorsement of Branstad by Sarah Palin, which prompted speculation about her motives in crossing her Christian Right allies; and a Des Moines Register poll showing Branstad beating his challenger two to one. Given the timing, it’s likely that Palin saw old Terry as a winner and wanted either to boost her flagging percentage of winning-candidate endorsements, or to have a friend in Des Moines if she decides to play in Iowa during 2012.
Nevada: The Chickens Come Home
The Senate Race
Since Barack Obama is not on the ballot this fall, and Nancy Pelosi’s district isn’t exactly marginal, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has had the biggest bullseye on his back of any Democrat in the country. He seemed particularly somnolent in general-election polls facing Republican frontrunner Sue Lowden, a former state party chair and casino owner who is beloved in national GOP circles.
But then came the infamous "chickens-for-checkups" saga, wherein Lowden made the mistake of arguing that Americans should get health services by bartering whatever they have, including perhaps live poultry, and then followed up by making the more important mistake of repeatedly defending her position. This didn’t kill her candidacy, but it did put chum in the water, and soon the Club for Growth and the Tea Party Express decided to tear Lowden apart on behalf of her primary rival, Sharron Angle, a Tea Party favorite from rural Nevada. Angle, a former state legislator renowned for lonely conservative opposition to bipartisan legislation, is now beating Lowden in every recent poll, with the more conventionally right-wing basketball scion Danny Tarkanian also moving within striking distance.
Meanwhile, Harry Reid is now running near-even with all three Republicans and sitting on a Yucca Mountain–sized campaign treasury. He’s still got a long way to go to re-election, but after today's contest, he'll probably be looking at a fresh start.
The Governor's Race
Unfortunately, the primary isn’t likely to be as friendly to Reid's son, Clark County Commission Chairman Rory Reid, who is running for governor. Yes, Rory will win his own party's contest, but his best hope for victory, a re-nomination of scandal-plagued Governor Jim Gibbons, now appears unlikely, with Republican Attorney General Brian Sandoval—a rare Latino politician who supports Arizona’s immigration law—holding a commanding lead in both primary and general-election polls.
Arkansas: The Grim Second Round
The Senate Runoff
When Arkansas Democratic Senator Blanche Lincoln failed to win a majority against Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter in last month’s primary, the commentariat basically wrote her off. But today's runoff vote could actually go either way, since it will be an old-fashioned, low-turnout, knock-down-and-drag-out GOTV battle of a kind totally different than the expensive p.r. war which preceded the initial race.
That was largely a battle of surrogates, in which Lincoln was backed by business interests and establishment Democrats like, oh, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, while unions dug deep into their coffers for Halter, in an aggrieved reaction to Lincoln's voting record and her big flip-flop on the Employee Free Choice Act (a.k.a. “Card-Check”). Clinton has continued to campaign for Lincoln in the runoff, but the unions' commitment to the race has outstripped that of their corporate rivals: The SEIU and the Working America labor coalition have sunk upward of $2 million and a lot of grassroots muscle into Arkansas since the primary. As in that contest, much of the fight will be over Arkansas’s crucial African American voters. But, ultimately, the decisive question may be whether Halter can get white, anti-Washington Democrats to the polls in southern Arkansas locales like El Dorado and Texarkana. He beat Lincoln there during the primary, and he could do so again.
Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic. He is also managing editor of The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute.