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Senate Primaries Heat Up With Intraparty Rivalries

GOP contests in Rhode Island and Tennessee could hurt the party's chances. But Democrats appear to face more potential headaches.

October 13, 2005|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A few weeks ago, Democrats feared they might not attract even a single first-tier candidate to challenge Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), one of their top targets for 2006.

Now, to the surprise of Democratic leaders in Ohio and Washington, two serious candidates are pursuing the nomination -- Rep. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and attorney Paul Hackett, the Iraq war veteran whose strong bid for a U.S. House seat in a special election this summer rocketed him to celebrity status in the party.

If Hackett doesn't step aside, as some in the Democratic establishment hope, the party faces the prospect of an expensive and divisive primary in a Republican-leaning state where Democrats usually need every dollar, and every last vote, to prevail.

"I would guarantee it's going to get nasty," said David Woodruff, Hackett's campaign manager in the House race. "We are going to have an aggressive campaign."

The possible Ohio collision is one of several Senate primaries that loom as wild cards as the two parties devise their strategies for the 2006 campaign. Each confronts the risk that its nominees in key states will be weakened by intraparty fights before the survivor can take on the opposition in the general election.

The most damaging primary could occur in Rhode Island, where conservative Stephen Laffey is challenging moderate Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee in a heavily Democratic state. A sharply contested primary could also complicate GOP chances in Tennessee.

But it appears that primaries may cause more headaches for Democrats than Republicans next year.

In addition to Ohio, candidates are competing for Democratic Senate nominations in Montana and Rhode Island -- two other states with Republican incumbents who are top targets for Democrats. And full-scale primaries are developing in Maryland and Minnesota, two states where retirements have left Democrats defending open seats.

Some Democrats see this proliferation of primaries as evidence that ambitious politicians consider 2006 a good year to be running under the party label. If Democrats have too many candidates in some states, they said, Republicans appear to have too few, after their preferred challengers to Democratic incumbents chose not to run in states such as North Dakota, West Virginia and Florida.

Others note that primaries can help the surviving candidates by sharpening their campaign skills and organization and generating more attention from the media. "For some candidates, it gets them up to speed," said Gary C. Jacobson, a political scientist at UC San Diego.

But many Democrats worry that these contests will divert resources and divide local parties -- especially in the states with targeted Republican incumbents.

"Primary candidates spend months publicly beating one another up and spending money that should otherwise be hoarded for use against the other party," Democratic consultant David Sirota wrote recently in the American Prospect, a liberal magazine. "Meanwhile, incumbents rise above it all ... stressing their credentials as statesmen."

As of now, the primaries developing for open seats could generate one major confrontation for each party next year.

In Maryland, Democratic Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin is the favorite in what could become a crowded field to succeed retiring Democratic Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes. But with former NAACP President Kweisi Mfume also running, Democrats could be hurt if the race opens racial divisions -- especially since African American Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele is the virtually certain Republican candidate.

In Tennessee, meanwhile, Republicans are nervously watching an ideological free-for-all among conservative former Reps. Ed Bryant and Van Hilleary and more moderate former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker that could complicate their chances of holding the seat being vacated by retiring Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.

But it is the primaries in races involving incumbents that are prompting the most hand-wringing on both sides.

In Rhode Island, Laffey is already strafing Chafee in a race that appears likely to generate more acrimony than the state's Democratic Senate primary. Chafee could lose support in the center if he tacks right to squeeze out Laffey -- or depress general election turnout among conservatives if he doesn't.

If the Ohio race between Sherrod Brown and Hackett develops, Democrats will have contested primaries in three of the six states where GOP incumbents are considered politically vulnerable.

In Rhode Island, Secretary of State Matt Brown and former Atty. Gen. Sheldon Whitehouse are competing to oppose Chafee or Laffey. In Montana, state Auditor John Morrison and state Senate President Jon Tester are battling for the nomination to oppose Republican Sen. Conrad Burns.

Each of these races could pivot on the same dynamic. Matt Brown, Tester and Hackett in Ohio are positioning themselves as populist outsiders and their opponents as more conventional career politicians.

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