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Primary Preview: All Eyes on Rhode Island

Nine states hold primaries today, but two Senate races -- in Rhode Island and Maryland -- stand out. In Rhode Island, Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R) finds himself in a tossup race with Cranston Mayor Steve Laffey, while in Maryland Rep. Ben Cardin appears to have pulled away from former Rep. Kweisi Mfume in the fight for the Democratic nomination.

A number of other interesting contests will be decided today and -- as always -- we seek to provide Fix readers with the information they need to win friends and influence people on primary night. Remember this IS NOT a comprehensive look at every race today. For example, you won't find rundowns on Democratic primaries in Maryland's 3rd District, Minnesota's 5th District or New York's 11th District (Though, in New York, make sure to check out Josh Kurt'z on-the-ground report in Roll Call). Those three races have no impact on the battle for control so we are leaving them out.

Now, let's take a look inside some of today's more imporatant races. The current incumbent's party is indicated in parentheses next to each race.

* Rhode Island Senate (R): Even those closest to the two GOP campaigns are unwilling to make predictions about the outcome. Incumbent Lincoln Chafee is an uncomfortable candidate and has made a number of too-honest assessments of his own campaign -- including an admission that he didn't want to run negative ads, but was overuled by campaign strategists who insisted it was a necessity. Chafee's primary challenger Steve Laffey has run a relatively unconventional campaign of his own -- foreswearing any comparative ads with Chafee for the last two months.

That's not to say there haven't been any recent ads attacking Chafee. The Club For Growth, which has endorsed Laffey, has spent hundreds of thousands on television commercials that hit Chafee for his record on tax and spend issues. Chafee has hit back, launching a fiercely negative commercial over the weekend that says Laffey "doctored" his resume -- among other charges.

Polling has been all over the map on this race and it's difficult to to get a sense of where things stand. The key number to consider is 45,000, which is the largest number of voters ever to cast a ballot in a Republican statewide primary in Rhode Island. (That turnout number was reached in 1994 when Gov. Lincoln Almond defeated then Rep. Ron Machtley.) Both sides assume this race will break the previous record, but the question is by how much? Conventional wisdom dictates that the higher the turnout the better for Chafee, but Laffey's outsider message could appeal to irregular voters too.

The winner of the GOP primary will face former state Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse in the general election.

Polls are open in Rhode Island from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Click here to monitor election results.

* Maryland Senate(D): As expected, Rep. Ben Cardin has used his huge campaign warchest to overwhelm opponent and former congressman Kweisi Mfume in the race's final days. While we haven't exactly been bowled over by Cardin's ads (they are pretty much cookie cutter), they have been effective in raising his name identification enough to win the primary comfortably. Mfume has a strong message based almost entirely on his personal story, but simply doesn't have enough money to get it heard. Josh Rales has spent millions of dollars but appears to be going nowhere and is not likely to break single digits. Assuming Cardin wins, Lt. Gov. Michael Steele's (R) chances at winning decrease drastically. (If you're looking for more info on the Maryland Senate race, make sure to check out the Post's "Maryland Moment" blog.)

Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m (except for Montgomery County, where polls will stay open until 9 p.m.). Click here for the election results.

* Minnesota Governor (R): What once looked like an potentially close Democratic primary race has turned into a blowout for state Attorney General Mike Hatch (D). Hatch is being opposed in today's primary by state Sen. Becky Lourey, who lost a son in Iraq and has made the war the central issue of her campaign, but has failed to gain any organizational or financial momentum. Hatch is now on television with an ad that claims he's "tough enough to be governor" -- a message clearly aimed at his likely general election opponent, incumbent Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R). A USA Today/Gallup poll released recently showed Hatch with a statistically insignificant one-point lead over Pawlenty among those most likely to vote.

Polls in Minnesota are open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Click here for results.

* New York Senate (D)/ New York Governor (R): The two Democratic primary races races for governor and U.S. Senate are not interesting for their competitiveness but rather because both Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) and state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer (D) are hoping to run up big vote totals today and on Nov. 7 to demonstrate their capacity at the national level. Clinton seems likely to run for president in 2008 while Spitzer will wait until 2012 or 2016 to make a presidential bid. Clinton faces anti-war candidate Jonathan Tasini while Spitzer must dispatch Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi.

Polls are open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Results are available here.

* New York's 19th District (R): This race hasn't drawn much national notice but if there happens to be a national wave, the identity of the Democratic nominee could be important. The Democratic primary has come down to singer-songwriter John Hall (he wrote "Still The One") and attorney Judy Aydelott. Hall appears to be the frontrunner, having secured the endorsements of key interest groups like Democracy For America and the AFL-CIO. He also outraised Aydelott in the race's final weeks. But, Aydelott is running a modern campaign -- sending out a bevy of direct mail pieces -- and has the endorsement of New York Times. Rep. Sue Kelly (R) has positioned herself well to beat back the candidate that emerges from the Democratic primary -- she had $1.2 million on hand as of Aug. 23 -- but the district has the potential to be competitive (Bush won it with 54 percent) in a good Democratic year.

Polls are open from 6 am to 9 pm. Results are available here.

* Arizona's 8th District (R): Rep. Jim Kolbe's (R) retirement has led to two competitive primaries for the right to replace him. The final outcome hinges on whether former state Rep. Randy Graf defeats state Rep. Steve Huffman for the Republican nomination. Kolbe -- as well as much of the Republican establishment -- believes Graf is too conservative to win in this southern Arizona district. The National Republican Congressional Committee is running ads on Huffman's behalf but their efficacy may have been blunted by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's decision to fund a series of ads attacking Huffman as weak on illegal immigration. Graf, who has a committed base of supporters built around his strong opposition to illegal immigration, seems like the favorite.

Assuming Graf wins, the identity of the Democratic nominee may not make much difference. Graf's conservatism would make him the weaker candidate in this moderate district and he would face an uphill battle. Former state Sen. Gabrielle Giffords is the preferred candidate of national Democrats and should win the primary. Former television personality Patty Weiss has considerable name recognition from her time on the air in Tuscon, but she appears to have been outmaneuvered by Giffords.

Polls are open from 6 am until 7 pm. Elections results are available here.

* Wisconsin's 8th District (R): For much of this race, we assumed former Brown County executive Nancy Nusbaum looked like the favorite for the Democratic nomination. Nusbaum carried the influential endorsement of EMILY's List and was the only serious candidate in the field with a political base. But, allergist Steve Kagen dipped deep into his personal finances to run a series of introductory ads that boosted him into the lead. So successful was Kagen's early campaign that he has now become the target of NRCC-sponsored ads that attack him as "Dr. Millionaire." A scenario exists -- Kagen damaged by the ads, extremely low turnout -- where Nusbaum can win, but Kagen is considered the favorite heading into primary day. The DCCC believes this race is winnable despite its Republican lean (Bush won it by 11 points in 2004), and has already begun hitting Republican candidate and state Assembly Speaker John Gard (R) on his ties to oil and gas companies.

Polls are open from 7 am to 8 pm. Results are available here.

By Chris Cillizza  |  September 12, 2006; 4:13 PM ET
 
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