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The costliest primaries of 2010

By Aaron Blake

A top Republican recruit made it through the primary in a key Tennessee House race on Thursday, but not before his opponents managed to spend millions of dollars taking him down a peg or three.

So as these things often do, it got The Fix thinking: With the dozens upon dozens of primaries being held this year in all these House, Senate and governor's races, which ones have really done bona fide damage?

So we did some digging, asked some smart people who keep close tabs on these things, and came up with a handful of races where the effects of the primary will linger into the general election -- financially or because of the nasty nature of the campaign.

Today, Tennessee farmer and gospel singer Stephen Fincher (R) can call himself a survivor after he weathered the storm against two extraordinarily well-funded opponents in the race to replace retiring Rep. John Tanner (D-Tenn.). Waiting in the general election, though, is a man who has been able to build a million-dollar war chest and avoid the attacks because he didn't face a significant primary -- state Sen. Roy Herron (D).

For Fincher and others, the process of recovering from the primary is going to take some effort, while others are in the midst of potentially harmful primaries that will stretch even later into the primary season.

Here are some more key races where the primary has proved very relevant:

California Republican Senate

Former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina wound up winning pretty easily, but she had a real scare there for a while against former Rep. Tom Campbell and conservative state Assemblyman Chuck DeVore. In the end, it cost her nearly $10 million, including $5.5 million of her supposedly limited self-funding potential. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D), meanwhile, raised $4.6 million last quarter alone and had $11 million on hand as of June 30, compared with less than $1 million for Fiorina.

Ohio Democratic Senate

Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher faces a Fiorina-like cash deficit against former Rep. Rob Portman (R), after spending four times as much as his Democratic primary opponent and winning by 11 points. But while Fiorina may still have some personal cash to dump on the race, Fisher doesn't, and his fundraising and campaign remain suspect.

Colorado Republican governor

In this case, it's the fact that there's a primary at all. Republicans badly wanted former Rep. Scott McInnis (R) to drop out of the race after plagiarism charges surfaced recently. That doesn't work so well when there's another candidate in the primary, Dan Maes, that party leaders find even less appealing than plagiarism-damaged McInnis. Their combined refusal to drop out also lured former Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo to run as a third-party candidate, making matters eminently worse.

Colorado Republican and Democratic Senate

This race has been a comedy of errors from the start. Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) failed to bury former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff early, and now he's fighting for his life this Tuesday (the latest revelation: a New York Times report on a risky financial deal he pushed as Denver school superintendent). On the GOP side, former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton ceded the lead to a candidate who has spent less then a million dollars in Ken Buck. That candidate then goes on, of course, to call tea party activists "dumbasses" (to a Democratic tracker!) and make an ill-advised comment about the gender of his opponent. The question here is who is the less-damaged candidate on each side. We're not sure.

Texas Republican Governor

It's hard for things to go well when a sitting governor faces a sitting senator who feels personally wronged by the governor's decision to seek another term. That was the situation with Gov. Rick Perry and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who really felt like it was her turn to be the party's nominee. It wasn't, but it left Perry with $3 million less in the bank than former Houston Mayor Bill White (D), whose decision to run was influenced by the knock-down, drag-out nature of the GOP primary.

Florida's 2nd district Democratic

Rep. Allen Boyd's primary opponent hasn't spent even $150,000, but he's forced Boyd to spent more than 10 times that -- a whopping $1.8 million. That's some pretty vital cash, especially with polling showing Boyd down double digits in (and if he makes it to) the general election.

Arkansas's 1st district Democratic

Democratic nominee Chad Causey's runoff opponent, Tim Wooldridge, has yet to endorse him, and staffers for Wooldridge have endorsed Causey's GOP opponent, Rick Crawford. There's a lot of bad blood here, in a race that Democrats arguably should have been favored to win thanks to their superior recruiting.

Idaho's 1st district Republican

OK, it wasn't so much the primary that killed Republicans here as it was the men who were in it. Namely, touted GOP recruit Vaughn Ward, whose apparent repeated plagiarism (there's that word again) and shoddy campaign paved the way for under-funded state Rep. Raul Labrador to win. Three months later, Labrador still isn't a member of the National Republican Congressional Committee's Young Guns program for top candidates -- in a 62 percent McCain district held by Democrat Walt Minnick.

Michigan's 1st district Republican

What do you get when the final results of a race show a one-vote margin? Al Franken and Norm Coleman have a pretty good idea. But the margin in their race was actually about 300 times as big as this primary, held Tuesday. Republicans Dan Benishek and state Sen. Jason Allen could be headed to a lengthy recount process. Advantage: state Rep. Gary McDowell (D), who has been unopposed for months.

By Aaron Blake  |  August 6, 2010; 12:11 PM ET
Categories:  Governors , House , Senate  
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Next: Fix Daily Poll: What will be the impact of the Missouri health care referendum?

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