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The ten best primary races in the country

In just 25 days, voters in Illinois will head to their polling places to pick nominees for contested Senate and gubernatorial races. Twenty eight days after that, Texas holds it primary with the fight between Gov. Rick Perry and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison already shaping up as a modern classic.

In other words: primary season is upon us!

The Fix, as regular readers know is a HUGE fan of intraparty skirmishes as, typically without significant differences on issues, the winning candidate is the one who runs the better strategic campaign.

The primary ante has been upped significantly this cycle on the Republican side where all across the country the battle for control of the future of the party between the establishment and the grassroots is playing out.

Friday Line

Eight of the ten primaries that made our Line are squabbles within the GOP and most, though not all, feature a candidate behind which the establishment has rallied against a candidate running as an outsider to the political process.

Who wins these races will go a long way to determining who is really in control of the Republican party heading into this year's midterms and, as importantly, the 2012 presidential nomination fight.

The primaries on the Line are ranked by their competitiveness and long-term import to the party. The number one race is regarded as the single most consequential primary in the country this year.

As always, your thoughts are welcome in the comments section below.

To the Line!

10. Arkansas Senate (Republican primary): The Republican race for the right to run against vulnerable Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln is a crowded affair -- eight people are announced! -- with several candidates able to make the case that they should be the nominee. State Sen. Gilbert Baker is the establishment favorite but Safe Foods CEO Curtis Coleman has the backing of some of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's fundraising team and state Sen. Jim Holt is perhaps the best known candidate in the race following his loss to Lincoln in 2004. (Previous ranking: N/A)

9. Arizona Senate (R): It's no secret that Sen. John McCain and the conservative wing of his party have never seen eye to eye. Despite that animosity, McCain has managed to avoid any serious primary challenge during his more than two decades in office. That may change this year with reports that former Rep. J.D. Hayworth is seriously considering a bid. McCain is still a favorite but he has made lots of enemies on the ideological right over the years who might view a Hayworth candidacy as a chance at payback. If Hayworth does run, McCain may well have to call on his former vice presidential running mate -- former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin -- to serve as a validator for him to the conservative wing of the party. (Previous ranking: 10)

8. Kentucky Senate (R): The race between Secretary of State Trey Grayson and businessman Rand Paul hasn't received the national attention of the Florida Senate race but it may well be just as good a story. Paul, the son of Texas Rep. Ron Paul, has surprised many -- including the Fix -- with his fundraising prowess and is starting to garner some bigger name endorsements including from 1996 and 2000 presidential candidate Steve Forbes. Grayson is the handpicked choice of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to replace retiring Sen. Jim Bunning and, as such, a Grayson defeat would be a major national story. (Previous ranking: 8)

7. California Governor (R): Speculation runs rampant that Rep. Tom Campbell is planning to switch from the governors race to the Senate contest, a move that would turn the primary into a one on one fight between former eBay CEO Meg Whitman and state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner. Both candidates are giving heavily from their own wallets -- more than $19 million for each to date -- but conventional wisdom is that Whitman has more to give, a major advantage in a state as expensive to run a campaign as California. (Previous ranking: 5)

6. Illinois Governor (Democratic primary): It's getting nasty between Gov. Pat Quinn and state Comptroller Dan Hynes. Hynes is up with a television ad bashing Quinn for the early release of 1,700 prisoners in a cost cutting move; "We have to do better," says the ad's narrator. A poll conducted for the Chicago Tribune showed Quinn with a comfortable lead but it's clear the prisoner release story has hurt his campaign. And, the anti-incumbent sentiment sweeping the nation won't help Quinn either. Will he be the first casualty of voters who are mad as hell and aren't going to take it anymore? (Previous ranking: N/A)

5. New Hampshire Senate (R): When former state Attorney General Kelly Ayotte (R) got into the open seat race to replace retiring Sen. Judd Gregg (R), she appeared to have a glide path to the nomination with national Republicans -- including the retiring incumbent -- behind her. Things have gotten considerably more complicated since then, however, with conservative Ovide Lamontagne and wealthy businessman Bill Binnie now running. Binnie, an unknown to the state's political class, made clear his commitment to the race by dumping $1.2 million of his own cash into his campaign in the final quarter of 2009. (Previous ranking: N/A)

4. Nevada Senate (R): With Sen. Chris Dodd's (D-Conn.) retirement, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is now the most vulnerable incumbent up for re-election in 2010. While Republicans failed to get any of their preferred candidates to run against Reid, they are still headed for a very spirited primary . And, because it's Nevada, the primary has taken on a circus-like feel with a former Miss New Jersey (Sue Lowden), the son of a famous basketball coach (Danny Tarkanian) and a wealthy businessman no one's ever heard of (John Chachas) all running. The winner of the GOP primary will be an even money bet -- at worst -- to oust Reid so the stakes couldn't be higher. (Previous ranking: 6)

3. Pennsylvania Senate (D): The battle between party-switching Sen. Arlen Specter and Rep. Joe Sestak has been overshadowed somewhat of late by the two races in front of it on the Line but it has all the makings of a classic. Specter will have a spending advantage and the support of the Democratic establishment including President Obama. Sestak is positioning himself as an outsider, a smart move given the anti-Washington mood of the country. This race has yet to truly engage but with the primary now roughly four months away (May 18), you can expect both men to pick up their level of activity -- and intensity -- in the near future. (Previous ranking: 2)

2. Florida Senate (R): Former state House Speaker Marco Rubio's challenge to Gov. Charlie Crist has officially become a major national story. Need evidence? Check out Timesman Mark Leibovich's magnum opus on the race -- and what Rubio's candidacy tells us about the tea party movement -- in the paper's Sunday magazine. While conventional wisdom seems to favor a Rubio victory at the moment, the race is still very far off -- the primary is Aug. 24 -- and Crist is going to have a clear spending advantage that he will use to try to raise questions in primary voters' minds about Rubio's conservative bona fides. (Previous ranking: 3)

1. Texas Governor (R): The primary is rapidly approaching in the Lonestar State and there is a growing sense that Hutchison has to find a way -- quickly -- to change the dynamic. Give Perry credit: he has taken the fight to KBH for the entirety of the race so far, repeatedly emphasizing his conservative credentials and questioning her motivation for running. Hutchison's considerable campaign warchest and strong image among Texas primary voters mean she still has a real chance at winning but Perry has to be thrilled where he finds himself in the contest today. (Previous ranking: 1)

By Chris Cillizza  |  January 8, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  The Line  
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Can't blame you for not including the Ohio Democratic primary in your Top 10, but it has sure shaken things up here in the Buckeye State.

However, if Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher (my candidate) continues to raise tons more money than his opponent, SecState Jennifer Brunner, then the calculus may shift in the next month or so.

She keeps saying she's in the race to stay, as any candidate in her position should.

But if Fisher maintains his 10-to-1/20-to-1 fundraising advantage, then perhaps others will convince Brunner to avoid an unnecessarily early exit from state politics and do what she could do best: Win reelection.

Posted by: kurtolandefeld | January 10, 2010 1:20 PM | Report abuse


Thanks for the perspective on the ground.

Chris Fox:

"... acting like a guy with a coke bottle stuck up his butt."

You would know.

Posted by: JakeD | January 10, 2010 10:16 AM | Report abuse

The Nevada Republican Primary for US Senate will be won by former Assemblywoman Sharron Angle. She is currently in a 3-way battle with Tarkanian and Lowden but is much more conservative than both of them put together.

I can't believe you even mentioned John Chachas because #1 he is currently polling at less than 1% and #2 he's a Wall Street banker who lives in New York City, and, despite his wealth, is unknown in anywhere in Nevada other than tiny, remote town of Ely. So far, 16 Nevadans have contributed to him and, coincidentally, all have the same last name, Chachas. Chachas gave a $2300 donation to Barack Obama in the 2008 election and it's clear to most Nevadans that the only reason Chachas could possibly want to enter this race is to buy Wall Street another senate seat. While carpetbaggers might sell well in New York, they will fail miserably in rural Nevada. Save your money, John!

Posted by: hangtown1 | January 9, 2010 7:01 PM | Report abuse

And double cognitive dissonance: On NPR some supposed Republican campaign expert pontificated the Reid is vulnerable because, since he is now Senate Majority Leader he is no longer Senator from Nevada. Now that is what he really said, but of course he meant that Reid was so busy leading the Senate that he forgot to represent Nevada, which is just plain malarkey. Being the Senate Majority Leader is, all by itself, reason for people to vote for him, since just by being that powerful he can easily look after his state's interest.

As disgusting as it is that voters buy this bull, it is more disgusting that supposed experienced news people buy into it. On that segment Bob Menendez admitted that of course he was concerned, it is after all his job, but the Republicans have to defend six seats that the republican incumbent is vacating just to break even, and the Dems have to defend (two) seats to accomplish the same task, and one of those seats seems to be able to defend itself. Ohio is specially interesting, because Voinovitch going IS a sign that the seat is slipping from the R column. Portman brings a whole lot less to the contest than Voinovitch, has many more negatives, and was publicly one of the many faces of Bush incompetence, but said Republican Expert knows that Portman is polling in front of the democrat, and doesn't know who the Democrat is. (Probably Fischer, and HE can eat Portman's lunch and not even gain weight).

The coverage of the lead up to the campaign is getting flatly disgusting, so when the Republicans turn on the sleaze pumps it is going to look and smell like the Bolgia of the Immoderate Flatterers, viewed from the bridge.

Posted by: ceflynline | January 9, 2010 5:55 PM | Report abuse

Cognotive dissonance: While the republicans in Nevada can't find a single actual politician with any quals at all to Run against the assumed to be beatable Reid, An ex beauty queen, a son of a (politely worded) controversial basketball coach, and a total unknown are even money bets to take his place? Is that adding the 20% that agree that one of them is a good candidate to itself twice and getting 60%.

Given that Reid is beatable, qualified politicians ought to recognize that fact. Qualified Politicians tend to run for seats they feel qualified for. Since none are willing to run, MAYBE they know something.

Like that the REPUBLICAN race is going to look like a three way version of the duel with broadswords Lincoln once proposed to silence a duel hungry opponent.

Reid's postulated unpopularity is based on his not getting anything done in the Senate, but he will shortly have quite a few accomplishments to run on. Will Miss ex New jersey, (not a state known for the beauty of its politics, surely, or its politicians) run on her having mostly kept her looks and her figure?

Posted by: ceflynline | January 9, 2010 10:30 AM | Report abuse

This is all you have to know about Obama:

The investigators were questioning the Detroit Bomber - and he was talking.

The Detroit Bomber was telling us about Al Queda in Yemen and the planning of future terrorist plots.

Obama decided to send the bomber a lawyer, who immediately tells the terrorist to "remain silent."

The terrorist stopped talking - and who knows what intelligence information was lost.


Posted by: 37thand0street | January 9, 2010 8:23 AM | Report abuse

I've never understood McCain's popularity.  He really doesn't seem like a very nice person at all, his personality strikes me as toxic.  Especially since he began his campaign last year.  I know that at one time he was chummy with reporters and was seen as quite a character, but the guy who refused to look at Obama in the debates was petulant and immature, stalking awkardly around the stage while Obama was speaking, acting like a guy with a coke bottle stuck up his butt.

His unpopularity among the baggers notwithstanding, he's just about as extreme as they are.

But since the campaign ...!  He's savagely bitter, the dishonesty he exhibited on the trail has just gotten worse and worse and he's one of the lousiest of the lousy Republicans, staking out positions as part of the opposition starkly at odds with his positions in the campaign, like axing Medicare.  Now he's savagely bitter in defeat, snarling at reporters, acting like a complete jerk.

Maybe in AZ he's the grand old man, but to me he doesn't seem any better than the rest of them.

Posted by: Noacoler | January 9, 2010 12:47 AM | Report abuse

In Arizona I doubt that any Democrat will knock off McCain but if loudmouth Hayworth were to do so in a Republican primary the Democrats would have a real shot at that seat. There are a great number of Republicans (and all others) that despise Hayworth and would have absolutely no problem staying home on election night or even voting for the Democrat providing he/she is moderately middle of the road or leaning a bit conservative.Generally speaking, we here in Arizona may not agree with John McCain but we do love him. The same can not be said for Hayworth by any stretch of the imagination. Most Arizonans I know loath him. Besides that, he is only known in Phoenix.The rest of the State has never heard of him

Posted by: Opa2 | January 8, 2010 9:25 PM | Report abuse

Just what CA needs, another know-nothing MBA flack corporate executive demanding to "get to the bottom line."

Posted by: Noacoler | January 8, 2010 4:32 PM | Report abuse

In California's gubernatorial Republican primary, here on the ground Whitman has money and will be forced to spend it to counter recent bad press re: Ebay management, her management style, corporate governance. Radio commercial very businesslike and she will need to soften up a bit. Poizner has been around for a long time, it seems, waiting to become governor. Jerry Brown's general election race to reclaim his old job is lose. CA is highly Democratic state with GOP in disarray. Rumor was L.A. mayor was going to run. Now he could not be elected city clerk. Hope you like him in D.C. when President Obama appoints him to something. Good luck!

Posted by: youngsag | January 8, 2010 3:03 PM | Report abuse

Of course the Governors race is the big thing here. It looks like it is going to be bloody. I think many Moderates are going to take a look at the Democrat Bill White if Perry wins as expected. KBH is no moderate or liberal but Perry has taken the right so hard he will not be able to get back to the center. Perry is hated by many in the state and remember in 06 he only got 39% of the vote in a four way race. White is no liberal and got 86% of the vote in his last reelection as mayor of Houston.

The other interesting race is the FL primary where a Rubio win would likely move the Florida Senate race to a competitive from an almost sure thing for the Republicans.

Posted by: bradcpa | January 8, 2010 2:39 PM | Report abuse

Agreed. Primary season is so much more action packed than the big day.
The primaries I cant wait to see unfold are Texas, KY, and Florida, but all of them should get pretty exciting the closer we get to election day.

Posted by: AndyR3 | January 8, 2010 2:27 PM | Report abuse

"CC, you should do a whole article on each of these races, which I am sure you will do when they get a little closer. I think another interesting race will be how does the NC governors D-primary unfold."

The beauty of the primary calendar is that as some of these races are decided, others will heat up & draw attention elsewhere. The MN Gov race still has a dozen viable candidates. Its not worth covering now, but as the endorsement conventions approach we'll better know who's in the field. Then, if the conventions endorse, both parties will likely still have primary battles - which is when we get into the establishment vs populist races, for both parties. It should be interesting.

Posted by: bsimon1 | January 8, 2010 1:53 PM | Report abuse

I agree with WilburM. Tiahrt/Moran is much more interesting than McC/Hayworth, for example. And I don't think Quinn/Hynes is more interesting than Whitman/Poizner.

What about the MI Gov. R primary?

Posted by: mnteng | January 8, 2010 1:36 PM | Report abuse

I'm just hearing there's a governor's race in GA, as well, where this guy is a candidate.

"U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal, a Republican from Georgia, has reportedly sent a letter to President Obama requesting his birth certificate.

The conservative, pro-birther site The Post & E-mail confirmed with Deal's chief of staff that Deal -- who is also running for governor -- sent the letter Dec. 1.

Deal was keeping a promise he made in November, when he said he would send "a letter to the President asking that he release a copy of his birth certificate so we can have an answer to this question."

But at the time, Deal said he'd be joining "several of [his] colleagues" in signing the letter.

The letter he sent? Only one signature on it: Deal's."

Anybody know anything else about this race?

Posted by: drindl | January 8, 2010 1:31 PM | Report abuse

No top 10 for Senate races? Seems like that's a list that is due for an update.

Posted by: DDAWD | January 8, 2010 1:25 PM | Report abuse

CC, you should do a whole article on each of these races, which I am sure you will do when they get a little closer. I think another interesting race will be how does the NC governors D-primary unfold.

Almost all the GOP races on this list are cases where you have an establishment vs right-wing candidate (except NV). This is a telling fact when you think about how these races will effect the general elections. I also want to point out that although Reid's poll numbers don't look great he is knows how to take a punch but even better how to throw a punch. Whomever wins the GOP primary better be prepared (ie have a TON of cash) to protect themselves from the onslaught that Reid will lay down as soon as the primary is done.

In PA, Sestak has faltered big time and I think that he will fade away in the next few months as Specter brings his financial advantage to bear.

Posted by: AndyR3 | January 8, 2010 1:24 PM | Report abuse

As to my below post -- Stensland is also a Republican, but she won't even feature in the CD 7 primary. The Democrats running in their CD7 primary are an OK bunch. Lets hope the primary delivers someone outstanding.

Sestak was a good threat to force Specter to be a better Democrat. Still, if Sestak had stayed put in the CD 7, we'd be defending a great incumbent instead of having to protect the open Congressional seat and lose a winning politician (either one)in the Senate primary.

Posted by: margaretmeyers | January 8, 2010 1:19 PM | Report abuse

WilburM, really?

Have you got any good links?
I'd like to read all about it and I bet others would too.

Posted by: shrink2 | January 8, 2010 1:07 PM | Report abuse

Bondosan, I don't think Sestak's ego would allow that. Too bad, because CD7 has a well-known Republican running against a news reporter, if anyone. Dawn Stensland will go nowhere (she has that local pariah husband).

Because of the late primary date, all the PA state races are very quiet these days. Everyone is just fund raising, hoping to land endorsements and maneuvering. Polling has made some candidates blink (Hoeffel and Gerlach). Gerlach's announcement doesn't make CD 6 a sure thing for him in the primary. He walked away for not much of a reason and other people stepped into the void.

Posted by: margaretmeyers | January 8, 2010 1:06 PM | Report abuse

The Illinois senate Democratic primary is more competitive than Arizona ever will be. With or without Hayworth, McCain won a Republican Presidential primary. Not to mention, his VP candidate is a conservative darling and she could give him a huge boost with help in Arizona. Now, if Palin were to endorse Hayworth, then this is a story. But the Ill. Senate democratic primary is less than 1 month away and it's up in the air. Durbin's favorite, Giannioulias, is leading but Chereyle Jackson must be taken seriously. She has ran a good race and turned the black constituency on to her candidacy. Even if Giannioulias wins the primary, with US Rep. Mark Kirk the R nominee, Giannioulias is in for an uphill climb. I think Kirk will be able to win in the Republican & Independent column in Ill., and he has a great shot at winning independents & picking off enough Democrat's to win the election. This is a guy who voted for cap & trade and is pro-choice. Makes a very interesting race.

Posted by: reason5 | January 8, 2010 1:05 PM | Report abuse

More regional bias!!! Kansas primary between sitting GOP Reps. Jerry Moran and Todd Tiahrt is getting vicious, with the social conservative vote being critical. And the winner will almost certainly become the next senator for the still-Red (not green) land of Oz.

Posted by: WilburM | January 8, 2010 1:01 PM | Report abuse

"...the FL-GOP primary is the #1 primary right now."

I agree, Texas is big and sooner too, but KBH has been so inept, or such a stranger to her cause in any case...for sheer political entertainment Florida is ripening nicely.

Posted by: shrink2 | January 8, 2010 12:59 PM | Report abuse

Where was KY for the Democrats? I haven't heard much about that race in awhile, but it seemed to heat up fast! It definitely seemed to have more intensity that AR for the GOP. And at this point, even though the TX race is sooner, I would say the FL-GOP primary is the #1 primary right now, as the Leibovich story indicates.

Posted by: mkmckoy | January 8, 2010 12:53 PM | Report abuse

yes, that was me. I wrote it here, then figured to go directly to the source.

Posted by: bsimon1 | January 8, 2010 12:18 PM | Report abuse

@bsimon - Was that your question in the chat? It seems that although IL is having its primaries soon, both races are walkaways.


Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | January 8, 2010 12:03 PM | Report abuse

I'm still hoping that Sestak can be convinced to run for reelection to his House seat. Then, he can have the Senate nomination all to himself in six years.

Posted by: Bondosan | January 8, 2010 12:03 PM | Report abuse

Wow, the Cali primary (and surely the general too) Republican spending may be big enough to qualify as a stimulus package and that for a state that really needs money to flow. Thank you rich Republicans. I'll bet Palin is jealous, she'd have to *work* to get elected.

Posted by: shrink2 | January 8, 2010 11:33 AM | Report abuse

You should give weight to the calendar when ranking races for the line. To have no words on the Senate primaries in IL, which are nearly upon us, is CRIMINAL.

Posted by: bsimon1 | January 8, 2010 11:09 AM | Report abuse

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