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Except For N.C., Both Parties Win On Primary Night

North Carolina Secretary of State Elaine Marshall finished short of winning the 40 percent necessary to take the Democratic nomination and the right to challenge Republican Sen. Richard Burr. The result was the one aberration in an otherwise good night for the two national parties, which got their favored candidates in the other two states holding contested Senate primaries on Tuesday.

In Ohio, Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher defeated Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner in the Democratic primary and will face former Rep. Rob Portman in the general election. In Indiana, former Sen. Dan Coats won a competitive Republican primary and will likely take on Rep. Brad Ellsworth, whom Democratic leaders in the state are expected to select as their nominee next month.

The Ohio and Indiana seats are open following the retirements of Sens. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) and Evan Bayh (D-Ind.).

In North Carolina, Marshall received 36 percent, followed by Cal Cunningham with 27 percent and Ken Lewis with 17 percent. As the top two finishers, Marshall and Cunningham will face each other again in a June 22 runoff, a costly addition for Democrats who would rather turn their attention toward Burr.

The Marshall campaign has already requested that Cunningham drop out of the race in deference to Marshall winning a plurality of the votes.

"Secretary Marshall won this race by a decisive margin. It would be best if Democrats in North Carolina could unite around her nomination to defeat Richard Burr," Thomas Mills, a Marshall consultant, told RealClearPolitics. "It's time for Cal Cunningham to join with Secretary Marshall to defeat Senator Burr in November."

Marshall received a boost from early votes, taking 42 percent of absentee ballots compared with less than 18 percent for Cunningham. Lewis actually received more absentee votes than Cunningham, taking 22 percent.

Keeping Marshall under the 40 percent mark was the fact that the other three candidates in the race -- Marcus Williams, Ann Worthy and Susan Harris -- took larger-than-expected portions of the overall vote, combining to win about 19%.

Cunningham finished second despite help from the national party, which heavily recruited him to the race after several other Democrats -- Attorney General Roy Cooper, and Reps. Heath Shuler and Bob Etheridge -- opted against running. A phone call from President Obama helped nudge him into the race in early December.

However, fundraising and momentum never took off. Despite running TV ads weeks before Marshall, a Public Policy Polling survey taken just before the primary indicated the ads hadn't penetrated. The poll found little difference between the two when voters were asked who they'd heard more about during the campaign; and nearly the same number of people said they'd seen a TV ad for Marshall as did for Cunningham.

Also, nearly half of likely voters still weren't sure two days before the primary whether they had a favorable or unfavorable impression of Cunningham; 39% said the same about Marshall.

Cunningham is young (36), highly educated, has a political background (former one-term state senator) and is an Iraq war veteran -- all attributes that led the national party to back him over his opponents.

Marshall, meanwhile, has four successful statewide elections under her belt (all for secretary of state), though she finished a distant third in the 2002 Democratic Senate primary. She was endorsed by the Charlotte Observer, the state's largest newspaper, and led in every public poll since February.

Defeating Burr in November will be a whole other animal for Marshall or Cunningham. The first-term senator is not considered as vulnerable as many assumed he was a year ago. For one, the national mood has turned against Democrats, and that could play out in a swing state like North Carolina.

Getting African Americans to the polls will be essential for Democrats. That voting bloc made up 23% of the 2008 electorate and 95% voted for Barack Obama, giving Democrats their first win in the state since 1976.

The PPP poll taken earlier this week found Marshall leading a hypothetical runoff against Cunningham by a 43-32 percent margin, with a quarter of voters undecided.

As for the open seat races in Ohio and Indiana, both parties see a path to victory based on the strength of their candidates and the national mood.

In Indiana, former Sen. Dan Coats took the first step in his political comeback by fending off the challenge of state Sen. Marlin Stutzman - supported by some in the tea party movement and Sen. Jim DeMint - and former Rep. John Hostettler. He received less than 40 percent of the vote -- hardly a show of strength -- but with no runoff Coats is the nominee.

National Republican Senatorial Commitee Chairman John Cornyn called Indiana "one of the strongest pick-up opportunities for Republicans." Democrats say the GOP establishment made a puzzling choice pushing Coats given the anti-establishment mood of the country.

"In Dan Coats, national Republicans got who they wanted, and who they got is an establishment Republican steeped in the culture of Washington; a super-lobbyist beholden to special interests for his fortune," DNC spokesman Hari Sevugan said.

But Coats came out swinging in his victory speech, making it clear that while Indiana may have swung blue for President Obama in 2008, the mood of Hoosier voters is in a far different place.

"In light of the damage that President Obama's policies have already done to the United States of America, as Hoosiers we cannot afford to be any part of this at all," he said. "And we absolutely cannot afford to elect someone to the United States Senate who will enable this radical move to the left."

He also referred to Ellsworth's vote for the health care reform law and said that "anyone who has voted to reappoint Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House cannot be trusted to protect Indiana's interest."

In Ohio, the national party breathed a sigh of relief as the establishment-backed Fisher posted a 55-44 percent win over Brunner.

Brunner struggled to raise money and had to constantly reject calls for her to quit the race, and yet polls showed her running even with Fisher and performing better against the Republican nominee, Rob Portman, in November. That changed in the final weeks as Fisher's money advantage kicked in.

In Portman, Democrats see the baggage of a former Congressman and Bush budget director. "Ohio can't afford to allow self-proclaimed 'Washington insider' Rob Portman to bring back his job-killing economic and trade policies that helped pave the way for the global recession," state Democratic Party chair Chris Redfern said after the vote.

Republicans counter that Fisher is a weak candidate with the same burden as Gov. Ted Strickland given the state's continuing economic struggles. As lieutenant governor, Fisher headed up economic development efforts for the Buckeye State. The NRSC also pointed to his depleted bank account while Portman is one of the best-funded Republican non-incumbents in the country.

--Kyle Trygstad and Mike Memoli