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In Idaho, a Palin Pick Goes Down; Contentious Primaries May Be Hurting GOP

The country remains largely focused on the Gulf oil spill going into the Memorial Day weekend, but the large batch of upcoming primary elections will keep candidates on the campaign trail and on every available communications medium.

One notable primary, Idaho’s, was held since our last update, and in the GOP competition to take on Democratic Rep. Walt Minnick, front-runner and national Republican wunderkind Vaughn Ward was beaten by state Rep. Raul Labrador, despite late personal appearances with Ward by Sarah Palin. Ward damaged himself with several gaffes, including incidents of apparent plagiarism in his speeches and a boneheaded debate statement suggesting that Puerto Rico is a foreign country. Meanwhile, Labrador (who was actually born in Puerto Rico) benefited from Tea Party support.

Next Tuesday primaries will be held in Alabama, Mississippi (whose state elections are in off-years) and New Mexico. The marquee contests then are the Democratic and Republican gubernatorial primaries in Alabama. Among Democrats, long-time front-runner Rep. Artur Davis is trying to hold off a late upswing in support for state Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks. Davis, an African-American, has ceded endorsements by four major African-American groups in the state to Sparks, who is white. That, along with Davis’ vote against health reform in Congress, seems to be fueling Sparks’ campaign, and the competition is getting a bit nasty down the stretch, with Sparks accusing Davis of breaking campaign finance laws and Davis running an ad accusing Sparks of discrimination at his agency.

The Alabama Republican gubernatorial contest looks to be boiling down to a question of whether Judge Roy Moore or Tim James joins state community college chancellor Bradley Byrne in a runoff. Byrne has strong business support, and is the closest thing to a moderate (by Alabama GOP standards) in the race. Moore is, of course, a Christian Right icon, and James, the son of a former party-switching governor, has sought to horn in on Moore’s political turf, helped by his own substantial financial resources. Byrne and James have been accusing each other, somewhat implausibly, of secret ties to the Alabama Education Association. And Byrne has gone after James’ famous “English-only” viral ad for threatening the foreign investment on which Alabama disproportionately depends. Believe it or not, James has had to deal with a rumor that he’s said he would cut the salary of Alabama football coach Nick Saban.

Campaigns are approaching red-hot status in many of the June 8 primary states. The hottest, and certainly the strangest, has been in South Carolina, whose Republican gubernatorial campaign was roiled this week by a conservative blogger’s claim that he had an “inappropriate physical relationship” with front-running candidate state Rep. Nikki Haley. She’s denied it categorically, and the blogger and Haley’s campaign have engaged in a cat-and-mouse game where the former has slowly released highly circumstantial “evidence” based on text message and cell phones records, and the latter has challenged the former to come forward with real evidence or shut up. Haley seems to be winning the p.r. battle the state so far, and today, the saga could take a new turn as RedState blogger Erick Erickson, one of Haley’s legion of national conservative supporters, is promising to release evidence that the accuser was paid to make the allegations (possibly by someone connected with a rival campaign). Interestingly, the whole story broke as Haley surged into the lead in polls; her most likely runoff opponent is Attorney General Henry McMaster.

In California’s torrid Republican primaries, it’s becoming reasonably clear that Meg Whitman is finally putting away Steve Poizner in the governor’s race (though Poizner is now staking everything on attacking Whitman’s opposition to the Arizona immigration law), and Carly Fiorina seems to be suddenly pulling away from Tom Campbell and Chuck DeVore in the Senate race.

In Nevada, the Republican primary to choose an opponent for highly vulnerable Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has turned into an unpredictable three-way fight, with long-time front-runner Sue (“Chickens for Checkups”) Lowden trying to hold off Tea Party favorite Sharron Angle, with Danny Tarkanian not far back.

But in both California and Nevada, there are growing signs that Republican primary infighting could damage the GOP in close general election battles. In CA, the vicious and incredibly expensive Whitman-Poizner contest has been accompanied by a steady rise in the polls by Democrat Jerry Brown. The focus on immigration in the GOP race probably won’t help the party’s already fragile relationship with Latino voters, either.

And in Nevada, Harry Reid, once left for dead by most observers, is creeping back into close contention with his potential GOP opponents, actually leading the rapidly surging Sharron Angle.

UPDATE: Another strange turn in the Nikki Haley saga in South Carolina, as RedState’s Erick Erickson finally released a post following up his promise yesterday that he had the goods on someone paying big money to blogger Will Folks to smear Haley, and would “name names.” In what was apparently an attempted send-up of Folks’ own methodology, Erickson offered no evidence of a payoff at all, but instead simply expressed his own weakly documented suspicions that Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer might have had something to do with it. Hilarious, eh?