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Four Senate Primaries to Watch in August

Four Senate Primaries to Watch in August

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - August 1, 2014

August in an election year can be a pivotal time in politics.

Members of Congress return to their states for the month, gauging public reaction to a job done (or not done) and campaigning for another term. Candidates use the time to ramp up their campaigns ahead of Labor Day, after which voters historically start tuning in more closely.

It’s a month when constituent responses can be most pronounced and most effective in shaping the theme or themes of the November election.

And it’s a time when campaigns can be made or broken. Todd Akin’s infamous “legitimate rape” comment that doomed his 2012 U.S. Senate candidacy -- and a GOP pickup opportunity -- came in mid-August, after all.

But not all campaigns are in general election mode yet. While the vast majority of this cycle’s primaries have concluded, three contests this month will determine the fate of Senate incumbents facing party challenges in Kansas, Hawaii, and Tennessee. And in the 2014 battleground state of Alaska, voters will choose a GOP candidate to take on Mark Begich, one of the most vulnerable incumbents this year.

The outcomes of the first three races appear more predictable than others have been this year. At this stage, all three senators facing primary challenges look safe. Nevertheless, their contests will test several familiar themes: competing GOP forces, the success of progressive Democrats, and the liability of having spent decades in Washington. And even the seemingly safest lawmakers know anything can happen, if Eric Cantor’s defeat in June taught them anything.

Here are four key Senate primaries to watch this month:

Kansas, Aug. 5

In seeking a fourth term, Pat Roberts has witnessed how drastically Washington connections have shifted from an asset to a liability. The Republican lawmaker has faced criticism for keeping his main residency in Northern Virginia and staying with donors and supporters when he visits his home state. The New York Times detailed his efforts to re-establish himself in Kansas without even having an address there.

Roberts’ challenger is a Tea Party-aligned radiologist named Milton Wolf, whose claim to fame is that he is a distant cousin of President Obama. Wolf has painted Roberts as the ultimate Washington insider who lost touch with his constituents during a multi-decade tenure in the nation’s capital. Wolf, on the other hand, has been plagued by problems of his own making after posting unsettling X-ray images of dead and wounded people to his Facebook page. 

A recent poll shows Roberts 20 points ahead, but Wolf has been making gains. He has run ads in the state targeting his opponent’s residency, and has pestered the incumbent for refusing to debate. The two candidates had an awkward run-in on the street this week.

While Kansas is reliably red and Roberts’ appears poised for re-election, the incumbent has spent as $3.4 million this cycle, compared to his challenger’s $650,000. He has been logging time back in Kansas recently, and is airing ads there. Wolf’s candidacy is not as strong as other challengers in other races and in other cycles. But it nonetheless has spotlighted the importance of home state ties over Washington ones in Republicans primaries these days.

Tennessee, Aug. 7

Two-term incumbent Lamar Alexander is also expected to win his primary next week. His race could be emblematic of ways Tea Party challenges have largely failed to gain traction this year and how strong, hometown connections help lawmakers survive.

Alexander has a history of legislating and brokering deals in the Senate, and had earned goodwill in the state as governor. In his first successful bid for governor more than three decades ago, he literally walked around the state, logging 1,000 miles on foot. He is seen as one of the more moderate members of his conference -- as is his state colleague, Republican Sen. Bob Corker, who easily won re-election in 2012.

Alexander’s top challenger, Joe Carr, has struggled to gain any momentum and conservative outside groups have largely written off this race. That may be because Alexander has waged a smart re-election bid. He hasn’t changed his voting patterns -- he backed comprehensive immigration reform last year, for example -- but he announced his bid early on and raised nearly $7 million this cycle to protect himself and warn away challengers.

Last week Carr tried to garner some last minute support ahead of the primary. Conservative radio host Laura Ingraham, who played a role in Cantor’s defeat, headlined a rally over the weekend, where supporters targeted Alexander’s support of immigration reform.

Internal polling shows Alexander ahead by 30 points, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Hawaii, Aug. 9

Much of the attention this cycle has been focused on Republican primaries and the GOP’s intra-party battles and soul searching. But Democrats have one of their own this cycle, in reliably blue Hawaii. And it is centered on a dying wish from one of the state’s most highly regarded public figures.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie appointed Democrat Brian Schatz to a Senate seat in 2012 after the death of longtime Sen. Daniel Inouye. The pick was controversial from the beginning. Before he died, Inouye expressed wishes that Rep. Colleen Hanabusa succeed him. Instead, Abercrombie picked his lieutenant governor, who at 41 has time to build up seniority in the chamber.

Hanabusa is now challenging Schatz to fill the remainder of Inouye’s term. Schatz is considered more progressive than Hanabusa, and is supported by liberal and environmental groups. But the primary hinges more on generational and cultural divides than on political or ideological ones.

The race is also remarkable because it is one of the few in which the incumbent welcomed President Obama with open arms. Obama, who endorsed Schatz in March, hasn’t weighed in on many primaries this cycle, but his birthplace state holds special significance. Schatz was also an early supporter of Obama in 2008, while Hanabusa backed Hillary Clinton.

Polling has been scattered. The latest survey, taken in May, shows Schatz up by five points.

Alaska, Aug. 19

Four years ago, the Alaska Republican primary was one of the most interesting and unique races of the season. Tea Party-backed Joe Miller defeated Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski on primary night. But Murkowski later a waged a write-in campaign and won the general election. In a year in which anti-incumbency reigned, Alaska chose its senior senator over the insurgent.

Now, with Democrat Mark Begich seeking re-election, Republicans seem to be bucking the Tea Party in favor of a more establishment-oriented candidate capable of defeating a well-known incumbent with long family ties to the state.

Natural Resources Commissioner and former Bush administration official Dan Sullivan is favored in the race over Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, a longtime Alaska politician. The National Republican Senatorial Committee has not endorsed anyone in this contest but has acknowledged that Sullivan appears to be leading. Joe Miller is running again, but hasn’t gained much traction.

Sullivan has raised $3.8 million this cycle, easily outdistancing Treadwell’s $1.1 million. And while Begich is considered one of the most endangered incumbents this cycle, he has raised $7.9 million so far and has been running well-received bio ads in the state while his opponents focus on battling one another.

Polling is difficult in Alaska, but the RealClearPolitics average shows Sullivan leading in the GOP primary by 11.5 points.

Unlike primaries in Hawaii, Tennessee, and Kansas this month, the race here won’t be all but settled in August. The Alaska general election will be one of the most watched this cycle, and could help determine the balance of power in the Senate.

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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