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Will Conservative Activists Win in Delaware and New Hampshire Primaries?

Today marks the last big primary day of the midterm cycle.  Following these eight contests, only Hawaii, this Saturday, and a runoff in Louisiana on October 2, remain on the calendar.

Most of the national attention during the week prior to these primaries has been focused on the two states with competitive Republican Senate primaries, Delaware and New Hampshire.  In both states, late surges by conservative candidates threaten not only to upset establishment-backed front-runners, but also to make these seats far more difficult for Republicans to win in November.

Delaware

The Delaware race has been particularly characterized by late dramatics.  From the day he announced for this contest, congressman Mike Castle has been the prohibitive front-runner, not only for the nomination but for the general election as well.  Castle has won a remarkable twelve statewide elections in Delaware and has never lost.  He has the solid support of both the state and national GOP.  His challenger, religious conservative activist Christine O’Donnell, is a relative newcomer to the state (though she did win the sacrificial-lamb Senate nomination against Joe Biden two years ago) and is mainly known for extremist positions on sexual ethics.  She also has a history of serious personal financial problems, and in fact, has no visible means of support at present.  On top of everything else, she’s run a campaign against Castle heavily laden with homophobic innuendoes about her opponent’s masculinity.

Yet according to the one recent poll, released by PPP late Sunday night, O’Donnell is actually leading Castle 47-44.  She’s received late endorsements from the NRA, Sarah Palin, and Jim DeMint, but only one endorsement, from the Tea Party Express, arrived early enough to give her any kind of material assistance.  She’s benefitting, it appears, from long-simmering conservative resentment of Castle’s voting record: he’s pro-choice; he’s regularly bucked the gun lobby; he voted for TARP; and he was one of a handful of Republican House members who voted for climate change legislation in 2009.  There may be a geographical factor as well; O’Donnell seems to be doing especially well in the southern portions of the state said to be fed up with the domination of Delaware politics by populous New Castle County (Wilmington).

O’Donnell’s late endorsements and particularly the PPP poll seem to have lit a fire underneath the Castle campaign, and his supporters have been pounding O’Donnell very aggressively as voters prepared to make their choice.  One piece of raw material they’ve used is a Weekly Standard article about O’Donnell’s gender discrimination lawsuit against a Delaware-based conservative campus organization.  “O’Donnell’s finances, honesty, and stability have been called into question in light of her false and strange claims,” the article suggests.

If she survives, O’Donnell will be the instant underdog against Democrat Chris Coons, the New Castle County Executive, who’s been running a stronger race than expected against Castle.  But even if Castle pulls it out, the bad feelings from the primary could help Coons make the race competitive.

New Hampshire

Meanwhile, a more conventional if equally close Senate primary is unfolding in New Hampshire, where another originally prohibitive front-runner, Attorney General Kelly Ayotte, is now hanging onto a small lead over “true conservative” activist Ovide Lamontagne, who was the GOP gubernatorial nominee back in 1996.  Ayotte does not have Castle’s kind of voting record to defend, and she’s been endorsed by Sarah Palin and some anti-abortion groups.  But she’s been caught in sort of a pincers movement. During the summer months, a self-funding businessman, Bill Binnie, spent millions attacking Ayotte’s competence and integrity, and lured her into a back-and-forth that boosted both candidates’ negatives.  Just as Binnie (who took the unconventional route of boasting about his pro-choice convictions) began to fade, Lamontagne took flight, particularly at the end of August when he secured the aggressive backing of that hardy conservative monolith, the New Hampshire Union-Leader.  The paper has focused particularly on undermining Ayotte’s conservative support, pounding her daily for agreeing to a financial settlement with Planned Parenthood over a lawsuit against the state’s parental notification law.

PPP’s last poll showed Lamontagne within seven points of Ayotte over the weekend, while another late poll, by Magellan Strategies, pegged her lead at only four points.  Jim DeMint offered Lamontagne a last-minute endorsement, and Sarah Palin’s done some robocalls for Ayotte, but the battle is pretty much between Ayotte and the Union-Leader.  As in Delaware, national party figures are unhappy with the prospects of an upset; Lamotagne is the one Republican candidate who’s trailed Democratic congressman Paul Hodes in general election polls.

Wisconsin

The other statewide contest of note is in Wisconsin, where Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker is in a heated battle with former congressman (and heavy self-funder) Mark Neumann for the Republican gubernatorial nomination to face Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett (D).  This race has mainly revolved around each candidate’s efforts to challenge the conservative credentials of the other, with Walker running last-minute ads attacking Neumann for voting for a large transportation bill in Congress back in 1998.  Walker’s been the front-runner all along, but Neumann’s money has made it competitive.

Washington, DC

DC Democratic voters will determine the fate of Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty, who’s gotten high marks from wonks for his efforts to deal with DC’s dreadful public schools, but has actually been trailing DC Council Chairman Vincent Gray in recent polls.  This contest has exposed long-standing racial rifts; while both candidates are African-American, Fenty’s strongest base of support is among the white gentrifiers whom some African-American voters blame for pricing black folks out of traditional neighborhoods; Gray has also unsurprisingly won backing from those who oppose Fenty’s controversial school reforms.  The outcome will probably depend on turnout patterns in DC’s very diverse electorate.

Photo credit: Kevin Dooley