Correction Appended: June 7, 2010
Voters in 11 states will go to the polls on Tuesday to pick which Republicans and Democrats they'd like to see slug it out in November. We'll find out if Blanche Lincoln will become the third Senate incumbent to lose his or her primary; which Republican will get to challenge Senate majority leader Harry Reid; and if Jim Gibbons of Nevada might be the first sitting governor to lose a primary.
This year's Super Tuesday of primaries is filled with intrigue, ranging from sexual indiscretions in South Carolina and no, this doesn't involve Mark Sanford, Argentina or the Appalachian Trail to massages for drug-addicted prisoners in Nevada. We'll also see some interesting tests of the power of the Tea Party movement: it's looking like the GOP Establishment candidate in Virginia's Fifth Congressional District has nothing to fear from his six Tea Party challengers, though such groups may succeed in bringing down South Carolina Representative Bob Inglis.
Here's a look at nine key races to watch:
1. Nevada's Senate GOP Primary
The Republican primary to see who will challenge Senate majority leader Harry Reid for his seat is quite a spectacle. Issues of late have included whether Establishment candidate Sue Lowden, a former chair of the Nevada Republican Party, is pushing a plan to barter chickens for medical care, and a Scientology-endorsed drug-treatment plan for prisoners that includes massages, put forth by Tea Party darling Sharron Angle. This race has gotten so ugly, there's a chance that "None of the above" always present on Nevada ballots could well win. Lowden and Angle are in a dead heat, closely trailed by businessman Danny Tarkanian, son of former University of Nevada Las Vegas basketball coach Jerry "Tark the Shark" Tarkanian.
2. Arkansas's Democratic Senate Runoff
Last month Blanche Lincoln led the Arkansas primary race for a third term, but she failed to garner a big enough majority to avoid a runoff. So on Tuesday, the state's voters will go back to the polls to choose either Lincoln or Lieut. Governor Bill Halter. Things aren't looking good for Lincoln, who has been attacked by unions and progressive groups that are willing to spend millions of dollars to show that moderate Democrats can't get away from voting-base interests Lincoln is a moderate who often votes pro-business, and was a conspicuous holdout on health care reform. Last week, for example, the League of Conservation Voters ran a brutal ad calling her "Big Oil Blanche" while showing pictures of Lincoln and President George W. Bush. Halter may be surging, but the two have done so much damage to each other that either will be vulnerable to Representative John Boozman, the GOP candidate, in the general election.
3. Nevada's Republican Gubernatorial Primary
One-term incumbent Jim Gibbons does not play particularly well with others, at home or at work. He followed a messy split with his wife (finally settled in late 2009) with an unusual defense against accusations by a cocktail waitress that he had sexually threatened her in a parking lot: he had not had sex since 1995, Gibbons said in denying the charges lobbed against him in a civil suit. Meanwhile, state legislators as well as his own staff have accused him of being absent during months of economic and fiscal crisis for the state. Even with a Tea Party endorsement, he's being called an underdog, a label the polls reflect. Challengers Brian Sandoval, the current favorite and the state's first Hispanic judge, and former North Las Vegas mayor Mike Montandon have every chance of being the first to dethrone a gubernatorial incumbent. Gibbons isn't giving in easily, though. He is trying to cast Sandoval as a flip-flopper who is not as conservative as he claims, and he has taken a hard line by vetoing the state budget because of his no-new-taxes stance.
4. South Carolina's Republican Gubernatorial Primary
In the wake of Governor Mark Sanford's bawdy indiscretions, South Carolinians were probably not too psyched when conservative blogger Will Folks said that he and GOP candidate Nikki Haley had engaged in "inappropriate sexual contact" even if Haley claims that she has always remained faithful to her husband and Folks has yet to detail what such contact might be. And despite another claim of an affair with Haley, this time by a lobbyist, she is still running ahead of her three challengers, and her quest to become South Carolina's first female governor has been helped by an endorsement from Sarah Palin. Her Tea Party support and popular calls for smaller government seem to have drawn in the state's disenchanted voters, but unless one of the candidates comes away with 50% of the vote, which is unlikely, it looks like the state will be headed for a scandal-mongering runoff.
5. Iowa's Republican Gubernatorial Primary
This is one race that should shed some light on just how strong the "out with the old" sentiment actually is. Former governor Terry Branstad, who headed up Iowa from 1983 to 1999, is the state's longest-serving governor a guy whose shaking hand gets exhausted on almost any city block and the current leader in the polls. But lesser-known rival Bob Vander Plaats has been closing the gap. Branstad is a milder, easier choice than social conservative Plaats, who toured the state with endorser (and enforcer) Chuck Norris this past weekend. But after 16 years in office, he's also the definition of Establishment in a year when that has proved to be lead around most candidates' necks.
6. California's Republican Gubernatorial Primary
The presumptive Democratic nominee, Jerry Brown, a former governor seeking his old job back, probably put it best in a recent commercial attacking his potential GOP opponents, the Tea Party favorite Steve Poizner and former eBay CEO Meg Whitman: they've spent "$110 million" airing "100,000 negative ads ... enough already." Indeed, this race has gotten nasty, with Poizner slamming Whitman for being a RINO Republican in Name Only. In the final days, Whitman seems to be pulling away from Poizner, but if she wins, she'll limp away from the primary with both her image and her bank account worse for the wear.
7. South Carolina's Fourth Congressional District
Things aren't looking great for Representative Bob Inglis, a conservative who has proven not conservative enough for today's grass-roots voters. He's not likely to garner enough votes to avoid a runoff, and if it comes to that, he'll probably lose, as the anti-Inglis vote would be consolidated behind one candidate. "I believe that the anti-Inglis vote is bigger than the pro-Inglis vote," says David Wasserman, House editor for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. Inglis is in trouble with Tea Party groups for his vote for the 2008 bank bailout and his support of climate change legislation. His comment last summer to "turn Glenn Beck off" and his call to fellow South Carolinian Joe Wilson to apologize for yelling "You lie!" at President Obama also haven't helped his standing.
8. Virginia's Fifth Congressional District
This GOP primary features a crowded field of seven candidates who have all been vying for the chance to unseat freshman Democratic Representative Tom Perriello. Many have billed this district as a poster child for Tea Party power and infighting, though it may end up proving how tempered the Tea can be. The GOP's Establishment candidate, state senator Robert Hurt, has emerged in the lead both in terms of favorability and recognition, the latter being particularly important in this fractured race. And he's done this in the face of criticism from Tea Partyers and his rivals for not being conservative enough to wear the Republican mantle. But if a poll commissioned by his campaign is to be believed, at least 35% of Republican voters think he'll do just fine.
9. California's 36th Congressional District
Veteran Democratic Representative Jane Harman is fending off the more liberal Marcy Winograd. Harman is the Blue Dog, and Winograd, a teacher and political activist, the progressive. Harman is the wealthy incumbent, and Winograd the grass-roots hopeful. Harman usually takes little notice of challengers, but Winograd is making her compete. In 2006, Winograd went up against the now eight-term incumbent and won more than 35% of the vote. It's still unlikely she will win, but Winograd is giving Harman her toughest primary in years.
The original version of this story wrongly stated that there is a third Democrat, David C. Moore, on the ballot in Tuesday's primary for California's 36th Congressional District.