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Whither Sarah Palin? (And four other storylines to watch in today's primaries)

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With Arizona, Alaska, Florida, Vermont and Oklahoma voters heading to the polls in the last major primaries of the summer, we at the Fix are turning our Morning Fix over to five storylines to keep an eye on in these states.

1. Wither Palin?: Outside of the candidates actually on the ballot today, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin probably has the most to gain or lose in the results.

Palin has endorsed four candidates running today: Sen. John McCain, Joe Miller in the Alaska Senate race, Allen West in Florida's 22nd district and Paul Gosar in Arizona's 1st district.

Out of that quartet, McCain and West look like sure winners and Gosar is favored. Palin deserves real credit for helping McCain weather a difficult patch in his primary race against former Rep. J.D. Hayworth; she campaigned for her 2008 ticketmate back in the spring when he appeared to be in genuine peril, testifying to his conservative bona fides.

Palin's endorsement successes today will likely be overshadowed by a likely failure in Alaska where Miller, an attorney, looks to be headed to a convincing loss against Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R).

Palin's decision to wade into the primary race in her home state was always somewhat puzzling. Murkowski is not beloved among all Alaska conservatives but neither did she create the sort of animosity within the base that a Sen. Bob Bennett, for example, did in Utah.

Many neutral observers chalked up Palin's decision to get involved in the race to a longstanding tension between the Murkowskis and the Palins; Palin beat Murkowski's father, Frank, in the 2006 gubernatorial primary.

Whatever the reason, a Miller defeat is sure to be painted as a blow for Palin with the "she can't even get someone elected in Alaska" storyline too obvious for most of the media to resist.

And, it comes at a time when Palin's endorsement strategy -- to the extent that one exists -- has fallen on hard times. Since June 8 when Palin-endorsed candidates Carly Fiorina in California and state Rep. Nikki Haley in South Caroline won contested primaries -- wins clearly aided by the former Alaska governor's support -- her preferred candidates have struggled.

Palin has endorsed 13 candidates in primaries since June 8 and has just three wins (Tom Emmer in the Minnesota governor's race, Mary Fallin in the Oklahoma governors race and John Koster in Washington's 2nd district) to show for it. Her candidates have lost high profile governor's races in Georgia and Wyoming during that time.

Palin won't likely get the credit she deserves for stabilizing McCain and will get more blame than is fair for Miller's expected loss. But, with the narrative already being built that her endorsement power is waning, a defeat in her own political backyard won't be helpful to her 2012 prospects.

2. Self Funders' Fates: The Florida Democratic Senate race and Republican gubernatorial primary each feature a free-spending self-funder trying to use millions to get to the party nomination.

Businessman Rick Scott in the Republican gubernatorial primary seems to have the better chance and had spent more money while billionaire real estate developer Jeff Greene, who is running in the Democratic Senate race, has been hamstrung by amazingly bad press.

Both men jumped into their respective races late in the game (in Greene's case, mere hours before the filing deadline) and both have the kind of baggage that would sink most typical candidacies; Greene has had to contend with a steady drip of negative press surrounding his financial dealings and lavish lifestyle, while Scott has fended off
questions about a fraud scandal surrounding his former company, Columbia/HCA.

But as demonstrated by their spending, neither man could be described as a "typical" candidate. Scott has pumped nearly $40 million into his bid against state Attorney General Bill McCollum (R) while Greene has poured $23 million into his race against Rep. Kendrick Meek (D).

Self funders have a short -- and not very successful history in the state and Greene seems almost certain to wind up not making a very good investment in himself. Polling is all over the place in the governor's race and those following the race closely acknowledge either man could win.

If both Scott and Greene lose, they'll serve as evidence of a storyline that's played out in
countless other races: even spending vast amounts of money on TV advertisements isn't enough to overcome severe weaknesses as a candidate.

3. Party Unity: Given the nastiness of the two Florida races, party unity will be a buzzword come Wednesday morning as each contest will be hotly contested this fall.

For Republicans, McCollum has the backing of most of the party establishment and Scott has done everything he can to thumb his nose at the institutional forces lined up behind his opponent.

The Republican Governors Association has stayed out of the race, but it took the unusual step last week of calling on Scott to take down an ad that tied McCollum to indicted former state Republican Party chairman Jim Greer -- a move that signals that national Republicans have become increasingly worried that Scott's attacks crossed the line.
Recent polling suggests that the extended and nasty attacks that McCollum and Scott have traded have hurt both men. The latest Quinnipiac poll showed Scott's unfavorable rating at 40 percent; McCollum wasn't much better at 37 percent.

If Scott wins, how quickly -- if at all-- will state (and national) Republicans rally
around him given that state CFO Alex Sink (D) is gaining momentum thanks to the bruising GOP primary ? What will the RGA do? (Worth noting: One plus for the RGA if Scott wins is that his ability to self-finance may save the committee some tough financial decisions in the very expensive Sunshine State.)

Meanwhile, Greene has tried to score political points by highlighting the fact that Meek has yet to say whether he would support the billionaire if he wound up as the nominee. (Meek -- again -- refused to say in an appearance on MSNBC's "Daily Rundown" yesterday whether he'd support Greene as the nominee.

Greene failed to gain any traction on the issue, however, and given that he seems headed to a double-digit loss today, it's likely a moot point.

More interesting is what -- if anything -- national Democrats do in the immediate aftermath of Meek's win to show whether or not they will put any money behind his candidacy in the fall. Our betting is they ultimately won't spend money in a race they remain unconvinced he can win -- but they may not make that decision public right after a Meek win.

4. Do Republicans get their preferred candidates?: A number of House candidates with either the overt or behind the scenes backing of the national Republican party face very tough primaries on Tuesday.

Washington Republicans have been rooting for businessman Bruce O'Donoghue to win the primary and with it the right to face 8th district Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.). Ditto businessman Craig Miller or Winter Park City Commissioner Karen Diebel in the primary to face 24th district Rep. Suzanne Kosmas (D-Fla.), former state Sen. Jonathan Paton to face Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), and dentist Paul Gosar to face Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz).

O'Donoghue faces someone the national GOP initially tried to recruit - former state Sen. Daniel Webster - among others. But O'Donoghue has struggled on the campaign trail, while Webster has the backing of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

Miller and Diebel (also backed by Huckabee) are both at the second stage of the NRCC's "Young Guns" program for top candidates, but a third candidate, state Rep. Sandy Adams, could factor into the race.

In Arizona, Paton faces Iraq veteran Jesse Kelly, and Gosar who has the endorsement of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, faces a bevy of Republicans, including 2008 nominee Sydney Hay.

Florida state Rep. David Rivera, who is a top member of the Young Guns program, is not expected to have a problem winning the GOP nomination in the state's 25th district, which Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) is vacating to run for the 21st district of his retiring brother and Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R). But Rivera has run into problems in recent days and Democrats will likely seize on any sign of weakness in a battleground open seat were 2008 nominee Joe Garcia will be the party's nominee.

5. Incumbents likely safe: No incumbents are expected to lose today. Nonetheless, it will be worth watching to see how four of them - Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Rep. Allen Boyd (D-Fla.) and Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) -- fare.

McCain has blown former Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.) out of the water with a $21 million primary spending blitz. A July poll showed McCain leading by 35 points. It's hard to see him winning by that much given the deep animosity within some segments of the GOP base toward him but anything beyond 20 points would be a pretty strong statement.

Murkowski is in a pretty similar situation. She hasn't spent near as much as McCain, but attorney Joe Miller hadn't even crested $200,000 in spending in his pre-primary report with the Federal Election Commission.

Boyd, who holds a conservative Florida Panhandle seat, has taken a McCain-like approach to his primary challenge from state Sen. Al Lawson who is black; the incumbent has dropped $2.2 million on the race so far although much of Boyd's spending has been geared toward a tough impending general election race.

Young, who nearly lost his 2008 primary to now-Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell, looks to be in stronger shape this time around. He faces businessman Sheldon Fisher, who has spent about one-quarter of the $600,000 Young has dropped on the race. Young also got a boost earlier this month when the Justice Department dropped its investigation of him.

By Chris Cillizza  | August 24, 2010; 7:44 AM ET
Categories:  Morning Fix  
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