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Is Delaware the key to the Senate majority? (And four other storylines to watch in the Sept. 14 primaries)

The final major day of primaries is upon us -- what a long, strange trip it's been -- with seven states (Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island and Wisconsin) voting today, along with the District of Columbia. Here's our "Morning Fix" preview of five storylines to watch.

1. Delaware and the GOP Senate Majority: Republican hopes of winning back control of the Senate this fall, which went from no shot last year to an increasing possibility in recent months, could well hinge on what happens in today's Senate primary between Rep. Mike Castle and marketing consultant Christine O'Donnell.

Republican political operatives -- virtually all of whom are supportive of Castle -- acknowledge that the race is close and fret that O'Donnell's small but motivated supporters (particularly in Sussex County) could matter in a small state where there are next-to-no recent examples of what the electorate in a competitive Republican primary will look like.

Public polling has been spotty in the race -- a recent survey put O'Donnell ahead while Republican insiders had internal data late last week that showed Castle up double digits -- but one thing nearly everyone not named "O'Donnell" agrees on is that a victory by the "tea party"-backed candidate would greatly improve Newcastle County Executive Chris Coons' (D) chances of winning in the fall.

With Castle as the nominee, Delaware has been -- and would be -- considered a likely Republican pickup; his moderate resume and long record of electoral success in the First State would likely serve him well in a general election.

With O'Donnell as the nominee, however, the Delaware race would be, at best, a toss up. Again, there's little reliable general election polling, but O'Donnell's personal financial troubles--coupled with her inability to raise significant sums--make it hard to imagine her winning in Democratic-leaning Delaware.

A defeat in Delaware would force Republicans to run the table in 10 states -- Arkansas, California, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Nevada, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Washington state and Wisconsin -- to win the majority.

Possible? Yes. Probable? Absolutely not. And that's why Delaware matters so much.

2. : Is New Hampshire close?: For months (and months), Democrats have gleefully sent out press clips suggesting that former state Attorney General Kelly Ayotte, the establishment pick in the race to replace retiring Sen. Judd Gregg (R), was struggling in her race for the Republican nod.

With scant reliable polling, it's been difficult to know just how much danger Ayotte is in, although it is clear that if she does lose, it will be to attorney Ovide Lamontagne, who pulled off a similar upset of the establishment in the 1996 GOP gubernatorial primary. (Two wealthy self-funders in the race have largely fizzled.)

While most analysts paints this as yet another tea party versus political establishment fight, that's a too-simple read on the situation. Ayotte, unlike, say, Castle, has considerable support from conservative, outsider elements in the party -- including former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin-- making it difficult to paint her with same brush as primary losers in places like Kentucky, Colorado and Nevada.

Should Ayotte win, most neutral observers paint her as a favorite in the fall against Rep. Paul Hodes who is unopposed for his party's nod today. A Lamontagne victory, however, would breathe new life into Democrats in the Granite State and almost certain make the race more competitive on Nov. 2.

3. Palin Power: Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) has endorsed five candidates who face primaries today, and all of them could be in for a tough day.

Palin went with the conservative outsider O'Donnell in the Delaware Senate race but is backing Ayotte in New Hampshire.

This follows a pattern with Palin, who had often endorsed long shots but has made safer picks in the early presidential primary states (i.e. New Hampshire). She backed former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad in that state's GOP governor primary (he won) as well as state Rep. Nikki Haley, who went on to win the GOP gubernatorial nomination in South Carolina.

Palin's propensity for endorsing long shots is more evident in Maryland, where she is backing businessman Brian Murphy over former Gov. Bob Ehrlich in the Republican primary. Few are giving the under-funded Murphy much of a chance to win the nod to face Gov. Martin O'Malley (D).

In freshman Rep. Michael McMahon's (D-N.Y.) Staten Island-area district, Palin endorsed former FBI Agent Michael Grimm who has faced late questions about whether he exaggerated his military service.

About the only Palin endorsee who should win pretty easily Tuesday is former "Real World" star Sean Duffy in the open seat race in Wisconsin's 7th district.

Victories by Ayotte and O'Donnell would affirm the power of the Palin endorsement -- even though she endorsed the Delaware Republican just a few days ago. Losses by both combined with a downballot loss or two by Palin-endorsed candidates will re-start the conversation over whether her support is less impactful than some people think.

4. New York, New York: Two Big Apple Democrats face the possibility of losing their re-nomination bids today.

Embattled Rep. Charlie Rangel, who is facing an ethics trial in the House in the near future, is being challenged by a field of contenders including state Assemblyman Adam Clayton Powell IV.

Despite Rangel's many negatives he has retained the support of the political establishment including Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former President Bill Clinton and remains favored to win -- with the anti-Rangel vote splintering between Perkins and Powell.

In New York's 14th district, Rep. Carolyn Maloney faces a Democratic primary challenge from Reshma Saujani , a 34-year-old, Ivy League-educated finance attorney who has drawn much of her financial support from Wall Street.

Maloney, who has represented the Upper East Side district since 1992, has never faced a serious challenge. But Saujani has accused the nine-term congresswoman of ethical lapses and of failing as a leader; at a recent radio debate, Saujani hammered Maloney as a "member of Congress emeritus" and said she had a "lack of depth and understanding" about the economy.

Maloney had raised about $2.7 million as of the end of August while Saujani took in $1.3 million. Little public polling has been done in the race.

Even if Saujani doesn't win this time around, she has pledged to pursue another bid against Maloney -- and a weaker-than-expected showing by the incumbent today could leave her vulnerable in two years.

Should Rangel or Maloney (or both) lose, they would join an ignominious list of Member of Congress losing primaries this year that includes: Rep. Parker Griffith (R-Ala.), Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D-Mich.) and Bob Inglis (R-S.C.).

5. Upset(s) for the RGA?: The Republican Governors Association has some serious skin in the game today, hoping the stronger general election candidate emerges in two key contests.

Former Maryland Gov. Bob Ehrlich and Milwaukee (Wisconsin) County Executive Scott Walker are seen as the preferred nominee for the party in the fall and both are favorites today.

But, Walker, particularly, could face some unexpected peril in the former of former Rep. Mark Neumann.

Public polling on the race has been extremely scarce, but Neumann has had the money (through $2.7 million in self-funding) to run a credible campaign and Republican insiders acknowledge that Walker's campaign over the past month has been something short of stellar.

The winner faces Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett (D) in one of the top races in the country.

Ehrlich is expected to win easily tomorrow, but if tea party backed Brian Murphy has a strong showing, Democrats may seize on it as evidence that the former governor doesn't have a united Republican Party behind him for the general election against O'Malley.

Meanwhile, if former Rep. Rick Lazio loses the gubernatorial nomination in New York, Republicans will be left with a nominee in Carl Paladino who could be an embarrassment -- he has acknowledged forwarding racist e-mails -- and could cause them some real problems downballot as state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo (D) could well usher in a wave of Democratic lawmakers this fall.

The two men are polling about even, and much like in Delaware, state Republican leaders have taken to doing whatever they can to avoid Paladino as their nominee.

By Chris Cillizza  | September 14, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Morning Fix  
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Next: The Connecticut Senate race tightens (or does it?)

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