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The Somewhat Super Tuesday: Previews of the California, Iowa, and South Carolina Primaries and the Arkansas Senate Runoff

Tom Schaller’s already done a preview of four (MT, NV, ND and SD) of the twelve states having elections tomorrow, and this post will cover four more: primaries in CA, IA and SC, and the Democratic U.S. Senate runoff in AR.

The first three states originally featured high-profile statewide barnburners that have cooled off a bit as candidates have built prohibitive leads, but as the carnival barkers say just before closing time, there’s still plenty to see.

In California, the authoritative Field Poll (tops, BTW, in Nate’s new pollster ratings) confirmed what observers already knew: Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina have blown open once-tense Republican gubernatorial and Senate primaries.

Whitman’s up 51-25 over Steve Poizner, after allowing him to get uncomfortably close in a couple of May polls. As you may have heard, this primary has featured unprecedented levels of spending (a total of $110 million), with Whitman spending over $70 million of her own money and Poizner chipping in $24 million. It appears that Whitman’s powerfully redundant TV ads attacking Poizner as “just another liberal Sacramento politician” have trumped Poizner’s attacks on her for unsavory associations with Goldman Sachs and for her failure to support Arizona’s immigration law (his almost exclusive message down the stretch). Counter-intuitively, given Poizner’s “true conservative” persona, Whitman’s lead (according to Field) is above-average among those who “identify a lot” with the Tea Party Movement and among “strongly conservative” voters.

Poizner’s challege, however, did force Whitman to abandon the technocratic, centrist tone of her early positive ads, and she’s lost some serious ground to Democrat Jerry Brown in recent general election polls, particularly among independents and Latinos.

While Fiorina hasn’t spent anything like Whitman’s vast amounts of lucre, she did put $5.5 million of her own money into a late ad blitz, just as early front-runner Tom Campbell ran into money problems. She also seems to have benefitted from a shift among conservative voters reacting to independent advertising against Campbell, and abandoning Tea Partyish Chuck DeVore as nonviable. Field currently has Fiorina up over Campbell 37-22 (with Devore at 19), but her lead among early voters (over half the total) grows to 20%.

Like Whitman, Fiorina has suffered an erosion in general election standing during the primary battle;’s latest average has her trailing Barbara Boxer 46-39. Also like Whitman, Fiorina has baggage from her corporate career. And unlike Whitman, she’s saddled with very conservative positions on abortion and on the Arizona immigration law–perilous in a state where Republicans need a decent Latino vote to win–which she endorsed (like the other two major GOP Senate candidates).

There are a host of competitive down-ballot races in California, including a Democratic LG contest featuring San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom and LA city councilwoman Janice Hahn, a member of a powerful LA political family; and a Republican LG race between appointed incumbent Abel Maldonado–who supplied a key vote for a Schwarzenegger-backed budget deal that enraged conservatives–and conservative stalwart Sam Aanestad. Notable among several competitive congressional primaries are a battle to succeed retiring GOP Rep. George Radanovich featuring ex-congressman Richard Pombo, conservative former Fresno mayor Jim Patterson, and the incumbent’s favorite, Jeff Denham; and another challenge to Blue Dog Democratic Rep. Jane Harman by 2006 candidate Marcy Winograd, in which Harman is the consensus favorite.

And this year there is just one California ballot initiative with national implications: Prop 14, which would create a Louisiana-style “jungle primary” system, essentially abolishing party primaries. The initiative campaign, which has commanded sizable pluralities in scattered polling, is being financed in part by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s PAC, with support from the Chamber of Commerce and other corporate figures; the underfunded opposition mainly comes from Democratic and union groups, along with supporters of minor parties who would lose their general election ballot lines.

California turnout is expected to be anemic, with about half the total vote being cast early by mail.

Iowa’s primaries frequently have future presidential implications, and that’s been the case in the state’s marquee 2010 primary, the Republican contest to oppose vulnerable Democratic incumbent governor Chet Culver. The frontrunner from the get-go has been former four-term Gov. Terry Branstad, an establishment figure with close ties to Mitt Romney. But in a state where social conservatives have been radicalized by a court decision legalizing same-sex marriages, challenger Bob Vander Plaats, who chaired Mike Huckabee’s successful 2008 caucus bid, was thought to have a decent chance at an upset, particularly given longstanding unhappiness with Branstand in the Christian Right. A late development was the surprise endorsement (quite possibly unsolicited) of Branstad by Sarah Palin, which seemed to take the wind out of the sails of Vander Plaats’ campaign. And over the weekend, the influential Des Moines Register poll showed Branstad holding a 2-1 lead over Vander Plaats.

In the Democratic Senate primary to choose a candidate for an uphill slog against Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Democratic veteran Roxanne Conlin is expected to cruise to an easy win over two opponents.

The most interesting House primary is in central Iowa’s 3d District, where Republicans have long targeted veteran Democratic Rep. Leonard Boswell. The national campaign committee is backing Jim Gibbons, a former wrestling coach at Iowa State (high school and college wrestling is a very big deal in Iowa) who is being challenged by a prominent state senator, Brad Zaun, and a tea party activist, Dave Funk. With four more candidates in the field, this primary could trigger Iowa’s unusual provision allowing a party convention to choose the nominee if no primary candidate wins more than 35% of the vote.

South Carolina’s Republican gubernatorial primary has been dominated lately by a nasty and confusing series of events in which state legislator Nikki Haley, a Mark Sanford protege and a favorite of conservative bloggers around the country, has been accused by two local political consultants (one associated with rival candidate Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, the other being a former Sanford and Haley staffer) of having brief extramarital affairs with them. Absent any real evidence of these affairs, the allegations have convinced Haley backers (prominently including Sarah Palin and CNN/RedState pundit Erick Erickson) that it’s all a cooked-up effort to beat Haley by a “good ol’ boys” network of SC pols.

If so, it’s not working so far, with the latest PPP poll showing Haley leading the four-major-candidate field with 43%, within possible striking distance of the 50% that would win the nomination without a runoff. The poll shows that a majority of likely primary voters don’t believe the sexual allegations against Haley. But–perhaps reflecting Haley’s own vow to fold her campaign or even resign as governor if the allegations prove to be true–42% of respondents think she should drop out if she did have an extramarital affair. With one of her accusers, blogger/consultant Will Folks, constantly hinting he will eventually produce definitive evidence of an affair, this possibility is, fairly or not, lurking in the background of the contest. Most recently, the Haley saga has morphed from sex to ethnicity, with Haley’s own state senator, a Bauer ally named Jake Knotts, referring to her (and to President Obama) as a “raghead.” (Haley is a second-generation Indian-American who converted a number of years ago from her Sikh heritage to evangelical Christianity).

The Haley saga has soaked up much of the oxygen in the race, largely neutering the financial advantage of her three rivals. PPP shows congressman Gresham Barrett, who has a strong regional base in the Upcountry area of northwestern SC, running second to Haley with 23% of the vote; Barrett’s main problem has been a vote for TARP. Early frontrunner Henry McMaster, SC’s Attorney General, is running third at 16%, while Bauer, whose already high unfavorable ratings have clearly been boosted by his alleged complicity in the “smears” against Haley, is running fourth at 12%.

Meanwhile, state representative Vincent Sheheen has used a big financial advantage and an upbeat campaign to overtake early frontrunner Jim Rex (the state school superintendent) for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, which may have more value than originally thought given the chaos and nastiness of the GOP race. A third candidate, however, state senator Robert Ford, could definitely force a runoff, in part because he’s the only African-American in a primary where African-Americans could represent close to half the vote.

The downballot race in SC that’s drawing the most attention is a Tea Party-fed challenge to incumbent GOP Rep. Bob Inglis (another conservative congressman who voted for TARP) by Spartanburg County prosecutor Trey Gowdy. At a minimum, it looks like Gowdy will knock Ingles into a runoff.

Finally, Arkansas’ runoff election between Sen. Blanche Lincoln and Lt. Gov Bill Halter is tomorrow, and while precedent and general atmospherics favor the challenger, it will all come down to a turnout battle. The one independent public poll, by R2K/DKos, showed Halter up narrowly (49-45), but the poll showed Halter with a huge lead among African-Americans which doesn’t seem to accord with what happened in the primary. Certainly unions have stayed the course impressively with Halter, with SEIU and a labor-backed coalition called Working America spending an estimated $1.7 million for the runoff. But Halter’s prospects will probably depend on his ability to turn out the vote in southern Arkansas, where he ran up big margins against Lincoln in the primary.