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In a reversal of fortunes for heretofore hurting Dems, Republicans nominated near-unsellable candidates in last night's primaries.

Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill, who is running for reelection to her Senate seat. (Reuters)

Last night's Republican primaries in Michigan, Missouri, Washington state, and Kansas couldn't have gone much better for Democrats.

The evening saw Missouri Republicans nominate their weakest candidate against Sen. Claire McCaskill, who spent her own campaign money in order to affect the outcome of the primary. They saw Republicans tap a reindeer-farming Santa Claus with controversial views to run for the suburban Detroit seat recently held by Rep. Thaddeus McCotter, R-Mich. And in a promising gubernatorial pickup opportunity for the GOP in Washington state, the first round of balloting showed Democrats still hold some fundamental advantages in a traditionally Democratic state.

The biggest news came out of Missouri, where GOP Rep. Todd Akin came from behind against self-funded businessman John Brunner and former state treasurer Sarah Steelman, two candidates who Republican party officials viewed as more formidable challengers against McCaskill. Akin, as a longtime member of Congress and ardent social conservative, has vulnerabilities that McCaskill is hoping to exploit. With the self-funding Brunner as the nominee, Republicans likely wouldn't have had to spend money to pick up the seat. With Akin, Republicans are very confident about their prospects - a recent poll showed him leading McCaskill by five points -- but they'll need to expend resources against the freshman senator.

In Michigan, the news was even grimmer. After McCotter failed to get enough signatures to qualify for the ballot, Republicans were left without a credible candidate in a Republican-friendly district in the Detroit suburbs. The only candidate who qualified for the primary ballot was Kerry Bentivolio, a Ron Paul acolyte and reindeer rancher who acted in a low-budget, Michigan-made film that blamed a George W. Bush-like character for the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Party officials rallied behind a write-in candidate, former state Sen. Nancy Cassis, with her campaign airing catchy jingles to draw attention to her candidacy. But her write-in candidacy failed to gain traction, and.she was soundly defeated last night by Bentivolio.

Meanwhile, Democrats had a sticky situation of their own, with two candidates on the ballot -- one being a supporter of Lyndon LaRouche. They quietly supported the credible candidate, physician Syed Taj, who comfortably won his own primary last night. What once seemed like a safe Republican seat is now no better than a toss-up race.

And on the left coast, Washington state voters delivered an unwelcome surprise to the highly-touted Republican gubernatorial nominee, state attorney general Rob McKenna. Washington state has a unique primary system, where voters can pick between every candidate on the ballot instead of being limited to a single party's slate. It serves as a useful benchmark as to where the candidates stand politically, just three months before the November election.

The results were very encouraging for the Democratic nominee, Rep. Jay Inslee, who led McKenna by a 46.7 percent to 42.9 percent margin. Another Democratic candidate took 4 percent, while three other Republicans split 3.7 percent of the vote. McKenna won just 35.4 percent in King County (Seattle); as Hotline's Reid Wilson points out, Republicans need about 40 percent of the vote there to be competitive. Inslee had trailed McKenna in public polling all year; the results suggest that the lesser-known Inslee has been coming on strong, and that Democrats are in good position to hold a gubernatorial seat that has been in their hands since 1980.

That's not all: In two lesser-publicized House races, things went the Democrats' way. The party got its favored candidate in Inslee's open House seat, the more-moderate businesswoman Suzan DelBene. Based on last night's results, she starts as a favorite against Republican John Koster, even though the newly-drawn district is closely divided between Democrats and Republicans.

And in Republican-friendly Grand Rapids, Mich.-centered district, Democrats landed their favored candidate against freshman Rep. Justin Amash, whose views and voting record are aligned with Paul, his political mentor. That's made him more vulnerable than most Republicans would be -- in a district that Obama carried with 51 percent of the vote in 2008. Democrats are bullish about their nominee, small business owner and judge Steve Pestka, and have released polling showing him with the potential to run competitively against the freshman.

All told, Democrats' prospects in a pivotal gubernatorial race and a battleground suburban House district improved markedly, and they now feel like they have a fighting chance in a must-win Senate race for Republicans. Not bad in a night's work.

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Josh Kraushaar is the political editor for National Journal.

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