June 8 Races Next Big Test of Tea Party Strength

Posted May 19, 2010 at 6:29pm

Those eagerly anticipating the next opportunity to take the pulse of the anti-establishment sentiment of the country won’t have long to wait.

Within the next three weeks, a pair of highly touted Republican Senate candidates will try to avoid going the way of Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson (R) by becoming the next victim of a suddenly energized tea party movement out to punish all insiders.

In Nevada, former state party Chairwoman Sue Lowden is clearly the establishment pick to take on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D). But that fact never did much to help her clear the primary field — which is set at an even dozen — and it has also served as an avenue of attack for her opponents. Though Lowden has led in most polling, state Assemblywoman Sharron Angle, a Tea Party Express-endorsed candidate, is starting to surge. Whether Angle can close the gap before the June 8 primary remains to be seen, but her conservative credentials got a further boost Wednesday when she was endorsed by the powerful anti-tax Club for Growth.

“If I’m Sue Lowden and I’m looking at those results [in Kentucky], I’m very, very worried,” Nevada political pundit Jon Ralston said Wednesday. “She’s been touted as the establishment candidate for the entire campaign … [but] Sue Lowden is suddenly looking and seeing that her lead has evaporated.”

On the same night, primary voters will head to the polls in California, where former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina (R) is facing a tough three-way race with ex-Rep. Tom Campbell (R) and state Assemblyman Chuck DeVore (R) for the opportunity to take on Sen. Barbara Boxer (D). Fiorina is personally wealthy and the choice of most of the national GOP establishment. But that support has become an avenue of attack for DeVore, who doesn’t think Fiorina, or Campbell for that matter, are conservative enough. DeVore has found supporters in Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and the tea party movement but is trailing in the polls. Still, his candidacy has proven to be a thorn in the side of Fiorina and the national party that recruited her as DeVore will likely siphon off her votes, aiding Campbell, who is viewed as the moderate in the contest.

After the loss of Grayson, who was recruited and endorsed by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Democrats are sure to point to a defeat of Lowden or Fiorina as a sign that the tea party movement has taken control of the Republican Party. And questions are certain to be asked about whether the party can ensure that other recruits, such as former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton in Colorado, or potential recruits, such as former state Sen. Dino Rossi in Washington, can make it to the general election.

But lest they get too caught up in Republican primary issues, Democrats have a pair of upcoming runoffs where the
anti-establishment story line will also take center stage.

On the same night as the California and Nevada elections, Arkansas Democrats will also be headed to the polls to decide their Senate runoff. In that contest, Sen. Blanche Lincoln has found herself in a much-tougher-than-expected intraparty brawl against Lt. Gov. Bill Halter. Lincoln has tried to frame the contest as a fight between herself and the labor interests that have sunk millions into Halter’s campaign. But Halter has obviously found room to run as the outsider in the race. And if Lincoln becomes the third incumbent Senator in a month to be beat before making it to the general election, incumbents on both sides of the aisle may begin to feel that the sky is falling.

Two weeks later, Democratic voters in North Carolina will return to the polls to choose their nominee to take on Sen. Richard Burr (R).

In that contest, former state Sen. Cal Cunningham is clearly the choice of the national party, who recruited him into the race over Secretary of State Elaine Marshall.

But Cunningham isn’t trying to tout his establishment connections. In fact, his campaign released a statement Tuesday in which he tried to paint the four-term secretary of state as part of the establishment.

“Tonight’s results show that Americans are tired of the same career politicians and they’re ready for a new generation of leadership,” Cunningham said in a release. “Here in North Carolina, my campaign has risen from 37 points behind in the polls to pull into a tie with a 14-year statewide office-holder.”

Marshall’s campaign scoffed at those comparisons and put the insider spotlight back on Cunningham on Wednesday, when attorney Ken Lewis, who came in third in the Tar Heel State primary, announced his endorsement of Marshall.

Marshall “did not back down from Washington insiders trying to exercise undue influence in our nominating process,” Lewis said in a shot at Cunningham and his supporters at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “Instead, Secretary Marshall has shown the kind of courage, strength and independence needed to create change in Washington and fight for the people of North Carolina.”