Handicapping Super Tuesday

We have a bona fide Super Tuesday on our hands, with four high-profile (relatively, for May) elections being held tonight. Here's a snapshot of where things stand, and who is expected to win.

Pennsylvania: Democratic Senate primary. Thirty-year Senate veteran Arlen Specter faces a challenge from Rep. Joe Sestak, a former Navy admiral who is running as a liberal.
  • The polls: Sestak has gained significant ground over the last several weeks, and major polls now show the race as a statistical tie.
  • The expectations: The race is too close to call. It's raining in Pennsylvania today, and low turnout should benefit the candidate with higher voter enthusiasm. Sestak has gained momentum of late, by running a TV ad that shows Specter--who was a Republican until last spring--appearing with George W. Bush. Given how things have gone in the last few weeks, it could be hard for Specter to pull it out--especially as President Obama and VP Joe Biden have decided not to gamble by appearing at any rallies in PA for Specter, though they have supported his campaign.
  • The fallout: If Sestak wins, it means it's hard to switch parties and defeat a legitimate primary challenger the next year. A 30-year Senate veteran, having been forced out of the GOP last year by a Republican electorate that had swung hard to the right, Specter will end his political career on a turbulent note, and the Senate will lose another moderate. If Specter wins, we'll see a rematch of the 2004 Senate race between Specter and former Rep. Pat Toomey, who his now a touted candidate for Tea Partiers. Toomey holds the edge over both Democrats in polls.

Pennsylvania: 12th Congressional District special election. In a race to succeed the late, legendary congressman Jack Murtha, this district in the southwest corner of Pennsylvania will vote between a former Murtha aide in Democrat Mark Critz, and Republican Tim Burns.
  • The polls: A statistical tie, according to an average of major polls. A May 10 Susquehanna poll had Critz up by six percentage points; a May 15-16 automated Public Policy Polling survey had Burns up by one.
  • The expectations: Republicans should win this district. They've hit Critz on Democratic energy policies (though he himself opposes cap-and-trade), but Burns is up against the long legacy of Jack Murtha. Overall, the electoral environment seems favorable to Republicans here. President Obama is not popular in this district, as 52-55% disapprove of him.
  • The fallout: It depends on the margin. If Burns wins by +5%, it's a good showing for Republicans, proving individual Dems can be tied to the party's energy agenda and that the president's unpopularity can bring them down. If Critz overperforms, it may reflect the power of Murtha's legacy.

Arkansas: Democratic Senate Primary. Labor has spent millions to propel Lt. Gov. Bill Halter in his challenge to incumbent Sen. Blanche Lincoln.
  • The polls: Lincoln leads this race handily, by at least 9% according to polls taken in May.
  • The expectations: Lincoln wins, but if neither candidate gets 50% of the vote, there will be a June 8 run-off. A third candidate in the race, D.C. Morrison, currently polls at 6% and could force Lincoln and Halter to keep campaigning against each other
  • The fallout: What have labor unions received, exactly, for the millions they've spent on Halter? They say they've gained credibility--that senators and representatives now know labor is prepared to spend millions to oppose Democrats who won't support their agenda. If Halter takes Lincoln to a run-off, that may be true. If she defeats him with ease, it won't be. Likely Republican nominee John Boozman beats both candidates by about 20 percentage points in major surveys.

Kentucky: Republican Senate primary. Rand Paul, the opthamologist son of Ron Paul, is the next big thing for the Tea Party movement, as he takes on a more traditional candidate in the establishment-backed Secretary of State, Trey Grayson in a race to replace Sen. Jim Bunning.
  • The polls: Paul leads by a mile--by over 16 percentage points on average, more specifically. Last fall, Grayson was up big, but Paul has turned that around.
  • The expectations: Paul wins. At this point, polls show such an overwhelming advantage that Grayson, despite serving as Secretary of State and carrying the endorsement of Kentucky's most powerful figure, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, isn't expected to come close.
  • The fallout: The Tea Party wins again, dealing a near-fatal blow to the DC-based Republican establishment, which backed Grayson. The real electoral power of the Tea Party movement will be trumpeted in the media, as the movement enjoys its third consecutive victory, of sorts, in a Senate primary: first, it forced Gov. Charlie Crist to drop his bid for the Republican nomination in Florida, then it unseated Sen. Bob Bennett at the Utah GOP convention. Could this spell trouble for McConnell? Speculation has mounted that Sen. Jim DeMint, who has endorsed Paul, will challenge McConnell for the Minority Leader job. A Paul victory, some say, could encourage DeMint to make that leap.
Thumbnail photo credit: Rand Paul for U.S. Senate 2010/flickr