Sultry August: The Primaries Begin

>We're close enough to the November elections to read real meaning into primaries. And August will bring quite a few, beginning with tomorrow's U.S. Senate primary in Kansas.

Vacated by Sam Brownback, the seat will stay Republican in the fall. Two aspiring congressmen, Todd Tiahrt and Jerry Moran, want the job. Tiahrt has been endorsed by the Tea Party-Conservative Machine nexus, while Moran has run a more cautious race. His campaign manager defected to Tiahrt because Moran often "winced" at describing himself as pro-life because he didn't want to overtly bruise the feelings of pro-choices and moderates. Tiahrt has long been one of the House's most conservative members, and Moran's voting record would be quite sufficient if Tiahrt weren't in the race, prodding him to distance himself from the hated Republican leadership in Washington.

Sarah Palin has endorsed Tiahrt; both Moran and Tiahrt are members of Michele Bachmann's Tea Party Caucus. Tiahrt has run a more aggressive race; Moran has fretted about the race's tone alienating more moderate Republicans. Tiahrt lags in most polls, but if energy adds to turnout and he wins, it's more evidence that Republicans' enthusiasm edge will translate to real votes in November.

Also tomorrow: a high-velocity Tea-Party backed challenger will meet a Blunt end, if polls hold out in Missouri's Senate race. Rep. Roy Blunt did his best to take the Tea Party anti-establishment rage out of the equation by lining up key validating endorsements like Michele Bachmann's. Few Republicans are as identified with the Washington establishment as Blunt, but his challenger, Chuck Purgason, seemed to assume that merely identifying with Tea Parties would be enough. He hasn't been able to mount much of a real campaign. If he wins, it'll be a shock to the system, a sign that the huge Blunt political machine was eaten alive by Tea Party termites. If Blunt wins, Republicans have a much better chance of keeping the seat. President Obama's approval ratings have dropped double-digits in this state.

Next Tuesday, Andrew Romanoff, the former speaker of the Colorado House, hopes to unseat incumbent appointed senator Michael Bennet, an Obama Democrat, to get the Democratic Senate nomination. The race has tightened, as Romanoff  has sharpened his edge against Bennet, improbably claiming that the freshman was responsible for basically every bad thing that's happening to the country.

For his part, Bennet is stuck: he is not oriented to engage in slash-and-burn politics, his record is thin because he hasn't been in the Senate for long and hasn't built ties to voters, and there's still a tinge of resentment left over by the fact of his appointment, seen by progressives as a knock against their values. In any other year, Bennet would be a shoo-in for re-election. In this year, there's a real chance that he could lose the primary.

NB: A Romanoff victory could be interpreted in one of two ways. First, it might be seen as a sign that Democratic enthusiasm in Colorado is higher, boosting the ticket's chances in November. Or it could mean that centrist or moderate Democrats will sit out in November -- they certainly won't vote for either Republican, spelling doom for the Democratic chances of keeping the seat.

NBB: Bennet is the brother of Atlantic editor James Bennet.

The Colorado race has been nastier on the Republican side, where the candidates, former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton and Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck, have memorably and awkwardly impugned each other's gender and motives. Buck has made two recent mistakes: he was caught on tape disparaging the Tea Party for their members' alleged obsession with President Obama's birth certificate, and he "joked" that he'd be a better candidate because he wasn't wearing "high heels," ostensibly a way of signaling to rural voters that he knew how to wade through manure (literally and figuratively) and could go to Washington and clean things up.  Brain-bending mixed metaphors aside, it's never good when you have to spend your last few weeks apologizing and justifying.

Note: Buck wants to pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan; Norton wants to stay the course. This is the sleeper issue in the race. If Buck wins and faces Romanoff, Afghanistan becomes a non-issue. If he  wins and faces Bennet, it could become a real one. The NRSC maintains its neutrality in the race, but the chairman of the committee has raised money for Norton and it has been widely reported (whether it is true or not) that the NRSC recruited Norton to run.

The Republican Party in Colorado may have screwed itself out of winning the governor's race by attempting to play favorites in the primary. There is no love lost between the campaign of one-time favorite Scott McInnis and CO GOP chairman Dick Wadhams. And Wadhams isn't terribly thrilled with candidate Dan Maes, who leads the race, either. McInnis and Maes have been tarnished by plagiarism and campaign finance scandals, respectively.

Enter Tom Tancredo. Or: Entered, Tom Tancredo. After having Wadhams disparage both McInnis and Maes in a private conversation (Wadhams denies this, but other Republicans have heard him say disparaging things), Tancredo threatened to run for governor as a third-party candidate unless both of the Republican candidates got out of the race. Tancredo last week declared his candidacy. Democrats will select John Hickenlooper, Denver's popular mayor, and he's favored to become governor. A lot of Republicans in the state are blaming Wadhams for the mess.

Finally, the winner of next Tuesday's Georgia Republican gubernatorial race, Karen Handel or Nathan Deal, will face former Gov. Roy Barnes, the Democrat who wants his old job back. Deal is tarnished by ethical scandals; Handel has been endorsed by Sarah Palin but has generated skepticism from organized social conservative interests because she supports the right to abortion in the case of rape or incest. (Handel was abused as a child.)  Both are rock-solid Republicans, and the signs from key endorsers are conflicting, so, predictably, the two campaigns are trying to discredit the motivations (not the judgments) of each other, to predictable effect: voters want to hear more. A Handel victory would be another notch for Palin, who deemed Handel one of her Mama Grizzlies and has campaigned for her.