California, Iowa, Nevada Among the States to Watch Next Tuesday

Next Tuesday 10 states (including California, Iowa and Nevada) will hold primaries, and Arkansas and Georgia will hold runoffs for the U.S. Senate and a congressional special election respectively.

There’s something interesting going on in every one of these states, but national attention has mainly focused on California, Iowa, Nevada, South Carolina and Arkansas.

The marquee California races, the GOP nomination battles for governor and U.S. senator, have become a bit anticlimactic, with Meg Whitman appearing to run away with the former and Carly Fiorina with the latter, according to a whole battery of recent polls (see the trendlines here and here). Total spending in the GOP governor’s race has now gone over $100 million, but Steve Poizner’s stretch-drive efforts to make the primary revolve entirely around Meg Whitman’s refusal to endorse Arizona’s new immigration law don’t seem to be striking much gold. Whitman, at some peril to her general election standing, has continued round-the-clock aerial pounding of Poizner for alleged liberalism on abortion and spending.

Fiorina has been the only Senate candidate recently on the air, though at vastly smaller levels than the gubernatorial candidates, but may also be benefitting from a consolidation of the conservative vote against pro-gay-rights, pro-choice early front-runner Tom Campbell, at the expense of the other conservative candidate, Tea Party favorite Chuck DeVore.

While political junkies might hope for late drama in these races, it’s worth noting that roughly half the vote in California will be cast early by mail.

In both contests, the Democrats (Jerry Brown and Barbara Boxer) awaiting the ultimate victor in November have enjoyed the intra-Republican slugfest as an opportunity to raise money, and both have been moving up to solid leads in general election polls.

As always, the California primary ballot has a number of initiatives, but the only one of national significance this time around would create a Louisiana-style “jungle primary” system that abolishes party primaries altogether and sends the top two performers (if no one wins a majority) into a runoff. In the current California atmosphere of deep hostility to the status quo, the initiative has a good chance of passage despite strong opposition from both major parties.

Iowa’s Republican primary is interesting mainly as a barometer of that very influential state’s conservative movement, currently obsessed with overturning last year’s state court decision legalizing same-sex marriage, and its potential impact on the 2012 presidential campaign. In the gubernatorial primary, former four-term governor Terry Branstad (who has been endorsed by Mitt Romney) is the far-and-away front-runner, but the one recent public poll shows hard-core cultural conservative Bob Vander Plaats (Mike Huckabee’s 2008 campaign chairman in the state) within theoretical striking distance. An upset would be very bad news for Romney, and very good news for embattled Democratic incumbent Chet Culver. But Branstad got a late break yesterday when Sarah Palin surprisingly (given the less-than-warm feelings of her close right-to-life allies toward the former governor) endorsed his candidacy. There are also a couple of very competitive Republican House primaries, particularly the contest to choose an opponent for Democratic Rep. Leonard Boswell, in which former Iowa State University wrestling coach Jim Gibbons in the favorite.

In Nevada, the big development has been the steady decline in support for the longtime front-runner in the Republican Senate race, Sue Lowden, and a surge in support for Tea Party stalwart Sharron Angle, who has also benefitted from Club for Growth backing. Two polls this week have shown Angle running significantly ahead of both Lowden and Las Vegas businessman Danny Tarkanian. But Angle presently appears to be the weakest candidate against incumbent Harry Reid, who has been slowly rising in general election polls. Reid will have a big financial advantage over the winner of the GOP primary. Meanwhile, in the governor’s race, scandal-plagued incumbent Republican Jim Gibbons looks almost certain to lose to former Attorney General Brian Sandoval, who will face Harry Reid’s son Rory (who is Clark County Commission Chairman).

The South Carolina Republican gubernatorial primary has turned into a circus of late with all attention focused on allegations of marital infidelity against state Rep. Nikki Haley, the hard-core conservative “reformer” (and Mark Sanford protégé) who took a lead over three rivals right before the allegations broke. If no further proof of the allegations emerges before next Tuesday, Haley will make it into a runoff, though it’s unclear whether Attorney General Henry McMaster (the early favorite), U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett (who’s been struggling to defend his vote for TARP), or Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer (who has high unfavorable ratings and has been accused by Haley of feeding the allegations against her) will survive with her. In the overshadowed Democratic primary, state Rep. Vincent Sheheen is a slight favorite over state school superintendent Jim Rex, with a runoff possible.

And in Arkansas’ Democratic Senate runoff, there hasn’t been any credible public polling of the Bill Halter/Blanche Lincoln battle, but the shape of the race as a war of labor and business surrogates hasn’t changed since the primary, with unions spending well over $2 million in the runoff for Halter, and business groups running ads attacking Halter on Lincoln’s behalf. Lincoln is mostly relying, however, on personal campaigning with Bill Clinton. And for all the TV ads in this race, it will largely come down to turnout, with Lincoln focusing on African-American voters and Halter trying to get southern Arkansas voters to return to the polls. As the challenger in an anti-incumbent year who exceeded expectations in the primary, Halter is the assumed favorite, but anything could happen if turnout’s low.

Ed Kilgore’s PPI Political Memo runs every Tuesday and Friday.

Photo credit: Aprilzosia’s Photostream