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The return of social issues

By Aaron Blake and Felicia Sonmez

1. Don't look now, but social issues could be making a comeback this year.

A California judge on Wednesday struck down Proposition 8 -- the state's ban on same-sex marriage. The decision came one week after another judge blocked key aspects of Arizona's new immigration law.

In both cases, the judges are thwarting policies favored by social conservatives, and their decisions have begun to stoke ideological tensions across the country. Needless to say, Republicans see plenty to take advantage of -- especially since majorities of voters support both the immigration law and laws banning same-sex marriage.

One GOP pollster called it "the worst of both worlds" for Democrats, because the decisions both rally the GOP base and divide the Democrats, who straddle the issues.

"This makes it even more difficult for Democrats to control what's being talked about over the next 90 or so days," the pollster said.

So does that mean Republicans will launch a social issue offensive? Hardly.

Six years ago, President Bush's reelection was largely credited to the turnout of highly religious voters. Since then, though, the war in Iraq and the economy have dominated, relegating gay marriage, abortion and illegal immigration to the political backburner.

Even when immigration reform flared up in 2006, it had a very limited impact and didn't do anything to stop the GOP from losing its majorities. Now that the struggling economy appears to be a GOP asset in November, shifting the focus to social issues risks taking the focus off the Republicans' bread and butter.

Republican strategists say the issues will be invaluable for fundraising and use in isolated cases, but that their overall strategy will remain the same: economy, jobs and spending.

While we should expect to see some illegal immigration chatter (see: the 14th Amendment this week), gay marriage is unlikely to factor much into the equation, said one strategist.

Said another: "They don't change the overall message of this election which is jobs and the economy. That is where the primary focus will continue to be."

2. Voters are voting for the second time this week as Tennessee holds its primary Thursday.

The big race to watch will be in the Republican gubernatorial primary, where Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam is favored over two more conservative competitors, Rep. Zach Wamp and Lieutenant Gov. Ron Ramsey. The winner will face businessman Mike McWherter (D), the son of a former governor, in the race to succeed term-limited Gov. Phil Bredesen (D).

The Republican primary has gotten heated in its final days with Wamp suggesting that states ought to secede if Washington doesn't change its ways and Ramsey telling supporters at a town hall that Islam is a cult. Wamp also has invoked religion in his campaign ads, including one in which he says that "we must restore America to its Judeo-Christian heritage and our Constitution." Taxes and gun rights have also been part of the mix.

Keep an eye on Knox County (Haslam's stronghold), Hamilton County (Wamp's) and Sullivan County (Ramsey's) as the results roll in Thursday night for a sense of how each candidate's holding up in his base.

There's plenty of action going on in House primaries Thursday night as well.

In the 8th district's open-seat race to succeed retiring Rep. John Tanner (D) -- which holds the dubious distinction of being the most expensive race this cycle -- farmer and gospel singer Stephen Fincher, Shelby County Commissioner George Flinn and physician Ron Kirkland are all competing for the GOP nod. Polling shows the race is a competitive one, and if Fincher wins, national Republicans will be able to count the victory as a major success for their recruiting efforts this cycle. The Republican nominee will be a heavy favorite in the fall.

Open-seat races are also taking place in the 6th district -- where businesswoman Lou Ann Zelenik and state Sens. Diane Black and Jim Tracy are the main rivals in the Republican primary -- and in the 3rd district - where Club-for-Growth-backed Robin Smith, a former chairman of the state Republican Party, is vying against attorney Chuck Fleischmann and nine others for Wamp's heavily-Republican seat.

And in the majority-black 9th district, former Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton is challenging Rep. Steve Cohen in a Democratic primary where race has become a defining issue. (Herenton, who is black, has said that he enjoys more support from African-American voters than Cohen, who is white; President Obama, meanwhile, has endorsed Cohen in the race.)

Meanwhile, if you, like us, have been asking why these primaries are all happening on a Thursday, we got our answer from the Division of Elections at the Tennessee secretary of state's office: Apparently, going back at least as far as the 1870s, the Volunteer State constitution has mandated that primaries be held the first Thursday in August.

3. Just when you thought the Colorado Republican gubernatorial primary couldn't get any weirder, two new twists have sent the race packing on a one-way trip to bizarro world.

First, a Democratic-backed group has inserted itself in the primary, launching a TV ad slamming gubernatorial candidate Scott McInnis for his involvement in a plagiarism scandal.

Colorado Freedom Fund -- a group funded by the Democratic Governors Association, the Public Education Committee teachers union and wealthy Colorado Democratic donor Pat Stryker -- is running the $50,000 ad buy ahead of next Tuesday's Republican gubernatorial primary.

Then, businessman Dan Maes, who is vying with McInnis for the GOP nod, told supporters at a rally last week that the policies of Denver Mayor and presumptive Democratic nominee John Hickenlooper are "converting Denver into a United Nations community."

What policies, you ask? How about Hickenlooper's devious proposal to encourage bicycle-riding in Denver?

Maes said that Hickenlooper's promotion of bike-sharing programs and other green initiatives "aren't just warm, fuzzy ideas from the mayor. These are very specific strategies that are dictated to us by this United Nations program that mayors have signed on to."

A SurveyUSA poll released last weekend showed the under-funded Maes pulling even with McInnis for the Republican nomination, with Maes taking 43 percent to McInnis's 39 percent among likely primary voters. The poll also showed Hickenlooper handily winning a three-way general election race against either Maes or McInnis and former Rep. Tom "The Tank" Tancredo, who is running under the banner of the American Constitution Party.

All of which spells bad news for Colorado Republicans -- and puts state Republican Party Chairman Dick Wadhams in an unenviable position. (To weigh in on what Wadhams should do, take our Daily Fix Poll.)

4. Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) is renewing the call for his Democratic rival, former Houston Mayor Bill White, to drop out of the race following an Associated Press report that White played a larger role in a billing dispute related to a company that he recommended for Hurricane Rita recovery efforts than he initially stated.

"Because Bill White has failed to come clean with the people of Texas, I am again calling upon him to drop out of the governor's race and to apologize to the people of Houston and our state for his unethical actions and for profiteering from a natural disaster while mayor of Houston," Perry said in a statement.

Perry first called for White to drop out in June, after the Democrat released his tax returns. At the time, Perry accused White of "profiting from Hurricane Rita" because of his investment in a company, BTEC Turbine, that he had recommended to aid the Houston-area Coastal Water Authority with relief efforts. White insisted that he had "no interest" in BTEC at the time of the hurricane and that "at no time did I benefit from BTEC's work on behalf of this community."

But according to the Associated Press, White was closely involved in a billing dispute between BTEC and the Coastal Water Authority related to BTEC's claims that it wasn't being paid enough by the Authority. The dispute was eventually settled in April 2006 and five months later, White was invited to invest $1 million in the company. He has since made a profit of more than $500,000 on the investment.

White defended his actions late Wednesday, stating that he "called on dozens of companies during the crisis of the hurricanes, and later made dozens of phone calls to ensure those who'd been called on were paid for services provided. No less, no more."

His camp also charged that Perry was "pushing old news in an attempt to distract from his land deal scandal and the fact that he's on vacation in California ignoring the $18 billion budget deficit." White has repeatedly hit Perry for allegedly channeling taxpayer money to a businessman involved in a land deal from which Perry made a significant profit.

While it's unclear just how intense the new scrutiny on White will be, the new report certainly blunts the momentum he has been claiming of late in the campaign.

5. West Virginia state Sen. Mike Oliverio (D) has taken a double-digit lead for the open seat held by outgoing Rep. Alan Mollohan (D), according to a poll conducted for Oliverio's campaign.

The Hamilton Campaigns survey shows Oliverio leading former state Del. David McKinley (R) 52 percent to 36 percent.

Republicans have made the race one of their top targets this year, but Oliverio's win over Mollohan in a primary appears to have helped the Democratic cause. With Democrats struggling to find favorable polling data in lots of districts targeted by Republicans, Oliverio's poll is a notable exception.

At the same time, the full poll results show the race could be close.

On the generic ballot, a Republican candidate leads the race 42 percent to 41 percent, and President Obama's approval in the district is just 29 percent.

Oliverio also appears to be benefiting from much higher name recognition. Only 21 percent of voters didn't know him well enough to rate his favorability, while 53 percent couldn't rate McKinley's. That means McKinley has lots more room to grow.

But the district, like much of West Virginia, shows itself willing to vote for a Democrat for Congress; Gov. Joe Manchin (D) leads the Senate race over Republican businessman John Raese 62 percent to 30 percent in the district.

Being over 50 percent is definitely a good sign for Oliverio, and his favorable-to-unfavorable rating of 58 percent to 19 percent is encouraging. The question is how much the national Democratic Party drags him down.

By Aaron Blake and Felicia Sonmez  |  August 5, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Morning Fix  
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