Election Watch: Romney Crosses Finish Line, Congressional Primaries Unfold

By / 6.28.2012

The presidential nominating contest officially came to a close on Tuesday with Utah’s primary—a reminder that this winner-take-all state was Mitt Romney’s ultimate fallback had the last real competitor standing, Rick Santorum, been able to make the Midwestern breakthrough he was so close to achieving.

Now down ballot primaries take over the spotlight, and Tuesday offered an interesting assortment of congressional contests.

There were two competitive Republican Senate primaries. One fairly nominal race was in New York, where one of 2011’s special election flavors of the month, Rep. Bob Turner (R-NY), who held the Queens seat vacated by Anthony Weiner, lost to right-wing judicial activist and Conservative Party nominee Wendy Long for the dubious privilege of taking on heavily favored Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) in November.

Meanwhile, in Utah, to no one’s surprise, Sen. Orrin Hatch won renomination for a seventh term, beating the self-proclaimed Tea Party challenger, Dan Liljenquist, by a two-to-one margin. Hatch came within an eyelash of the 60 percent vote needed to win the nomination without a primary in Utah’s April state GOP convention, but left nothing to chance, outspending his rival by a 10-1 ratio and limiting outside intervention on Liljenquist’s behalf to some lonely ads by FreedomWorks. The CW today is that the Tea Party folk won a moral victory in Utah by heavily influencing Hatch’s Senate votes and general political posture over the last two years, after his colleague Bob Bennett went down in 2010 to right-wing champion Mike Lee. Hatch is now overwhelmingly favored in November against longtime Democratic activist and tech executive Scott Howell, in a state where Mitt Romney is to LDS members what JFK represented to Catholics in 1960.

Tea Folk could claim one scalp on Tuesday: Rep. John Sullivan (R-Okla.) was upset by novice pol Jim Bridenstine, though the incumbent’s poor attendance record, admitted past alcohol problem, and languorous campaigning probably mattered more than ideology.

Other incumbents fared much better. The marquee race of the night was in New York, where Charlie Rangel survived a six-candidate contest, edging Dominican-American state senator Adriano Espaillat in a district increasingly dominated by Latino voters. Another Big Apple incumbent, Nydia Valasquez, overcame an opponent backed by the Brooklyn Democratic organization in a seat significantly changed by redistricting. And in a race that rivaled the Rangel contest in notoriety thanks to the heavy conservative media attention paid to the loser as a supposed symbol of Democratic radicalism, Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries trounced city councilman Charles Barron, a former Black Panther who was a big fan of Robert Mugabe and a noisy opponent of Israel. Meanwhile, in a much quieter race, Democrat Grace Meng becamethe first Asian-American to represent New York City in Congress, reflecting the ethnic trend in her Queens district.

South Carolina held a low-turnout runoff to supplement the low-turnout primary that was marred by massive disbarment of candidates by the state’s Supreme Court for failure to properly file financial disclosure document. In the one open congressional race, former Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, who lost badly in the 2010 gubernatorial primary (subsequent to, but not necessarily because of, the national notoriety he achieved via a speech in which he compared food stamp recipients to “stray animals”), lost to stolid local officeholder Tom Rice, even though the winner allowed as how he was a bit to the left of Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC). That’s what passes for dangerous moderation in the Palmetto State these days.

July is going to be a relatively quiet month for primaries. North Carolina holds runoff elections on July 17. The one major congressional contest is in the district that conservative Democrat Heath Shuler is vacating. Real estate developer Mark Meadows, who got some unsavory national attention for birtherist talk at a recent campaign event, is favored to beat Vance Patterson in the GOP runoff, and will then be favored to defeat Shuler’s chief of staff, Hayen Rogers, in November. And on July 31, Georgia will hold its primary, with the main suspense being over the fate of regional referenda on a transportation sales tax, which despite the support of the state’s GOP leadership, could produce quite a few Tea Party-inspired primary upsets in legislative races.

Next week we’ll return to a scrutiny of developments in the presidential race, and national political dynamics generally.

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