SC, Utah Runoffs Highlight Tuesday Primaries

It’s primary day in Utah, with statewide primary runoffs on tap in North and South Carolina.

Taking these states in reverse order: South Carolina is almost certain to produce the bulk of national political headlines tonight, with the made-for-TV saga of Republican gubernatorial candidate (and certain boffo winner tonight) Nikki Haley front-and-center. In case you have somehow missed it, Haley is the very, very conservative state legislator who began the campaign as the underfunded protégé of disgraced “conservative reformer” Mark Sanford, and then vaulted into contention just as one and then two South Carolina Republican political operatives went public with allegations that they’d had illicit sex with the candidate.

It’s sometimes difficult to separate cause and effect in political developments, but it’s reasonably clear that the poorly documented sexual allegations against Haley, compounded more recently by crude attacks on her ethnicity (she’s second-generation Indian-American) and religion (she’s an adult convert to evangelical Protestantism from her family’s Sikh tradition), have immeasurably helped her campaign while reducing her once-powerful gubernatorial rivals to bystanders if not presumed accomplices in smears against her. Haley nearly won the nomination without a runoff, and was also endorsed by third-place finisher Attorney General Henry McMaster. Her opponent, Rep. Gresham Barrett, won the dubious prize of an endorsement from last-place primary finisher Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, and also managed to outspend Haley in the brief runoff campaign. But that matters little in a race driven by scandal-fed free media, and the only question is how high her margin will rise, and how well she wears on voters in a long general election campaign against Democrat Vincent Sheheen.

Those who want to boost the GOP as a party that presents diverse candidates proclaiming a single rigid conservative message will be hoping against hope that another South Carolina runoff, in the Low Country 1st congressional district, produces a win for state representative Tim Scott. Scott, who like Haley claims the “true conservative” mantle (and has both a Sarah Palin endorsement and Club for Growth backing), is African-American, and in a coincidence that could have been made in Hollywood, his runoff opponent is none other than Strom Thurmond’s son, Paul (a Charleston County council member).

Meanwhile, in upstate South Carolina, Republican Rep. Bob Inglis is expected to lose his House seat to Tea Party favorite Trey Gowdy; Inglis only won 28 percent of the vote in the primary to Gowdy’s 39 percent. Inglis got into trouble for voting for TARP and daring to criticize Glenn Beck.

In North Carolina, it’s anybody’s guess as to whether Elaine Marshall or Cal Cunningham will win the Democratic nomination to face Sen. Richard Burr. Marshall led the primary 37-26, narrowly missing the 40 percent threshold for winning the nomination outright. She also got an endorsement from third-place primary finisher Ken Lewis, which added to her strength among African-American leaders. But Cunningham, who was recruited into the race by the DCCC, has been the aggressor in the runoff, touting his electability.  The only public poll of the runoff, taken by PPP last month, showed the two dead even with a large undecided vote. I’d guess Marshall is still the favorite to win a very low-turnout runoff.

Aficionados of wild campaigns and wilder candidates may be disappointed tonight by the expected defeat of North Carolina Republican congressional candidate Tim D’Annunzio, who according to PPP is trailing Harold Johnson for the right to take on Democratic incumbent Larry Kissell.

With so much national attention on the Carolinas, the ideological drama going on in both parties in Utah may not receive due notice. As you may recall, Utah Republicans dumped Sen. Bob Bennett at a state convention last month as he trailed two challengers for the right to go to today’s primary. The survivors, entrepreneur Tim Bridgewater and former SCOTUS clerk Mike Lee, are both hard-core conservatives by most national standards. But Lee’s national supporters (including Jim DeMint and RedState’s Erick Erickson) are going after Bridgewater hammer-and-tong as little other than the ideological heir to Bennett (who, along with another defeated candidate, Eagle Forum activist Cherilyn Eagar, has endorsed Bridgewater). The one independent poll shows Bridgewater up by nine points, but Lee has released his own poll showing him up nine points.

Meanwhile, Utah’s sole Democratic congressman, Tim Matheson, is facing a serious primary challenge from the left, from retired teacher Claudia Wright. Wright has made Matheson’s opposition to health reform a major theme, and there’s also been talk of Republicans crossing over into the open Democratic primary to “take out” the incumbent (though as always, tactical voting is actually a pretty rare phenomenon). In a late poll, Matheson led Wright 52-33, but whatever vote Wright receives will be closely watched for national implications, given progressive grumbling about Blue Dogs like Matheson.

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