The Last Big Primary Night of 2006

Six states selected candidates for state and federal office September 12, the last big primary night of ’06. Among the highlights:

Arizona: Graf-ing a Win

Stalwart conservative former State Rep. Randy Graf topped the five-candidate primary field to win the Republican nomination for Arizona’s only open U.S. House seat. In so doing, Graf defeated the hand-picked candidate of retiring moderate Rep. Jim Kolbe who was backed by the National Republican Congressional Committee (see Human Events, September 11, Page 1).

After he drew 43% of the vote against Kolbe in ’04, Graf, with his hard-line pro-life position and his vigorous backing of strong border security, galvanized support for a future race among conservatives nationally as well as in the Tucson-based 8th District (which stretches along the Mexican border). Two weeks ago, the NRCC made a stunning move by launching an independent expenditure effort on behalf of Graf’s leading primary foe and Kolbe’s candidate, State Rep. Steve Huffman.

The committee spent an estimated $242,000 on Huffman because its leaders felt, according to one source close to NRCC Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.), that “Graf is unelectable.”

The strike for Huffman “rallied our people—volunteers, small donors—and we had our infantry fired up on primary day,” Graf campaign manager R.T. Gregg told me.

The conservative hopeful defeated Huffman 43.2% to 37.2%, with Republican National Committeeman Mike Hellon picking up 12.2% of the vote.

Graf now faces liberal Democratic State Sen. Gabrielle Giffords in what is sure to be one of the country’s most hotly contested House races.

Maryland: Cardin to Test Strength of Steele

With a huge spending advantage and endorsements from the Washington Post and most major Maryland newspapers and from most elected Democrats, Rep. Ben Cardin handily won the Democratic nomination to succeed retiring Sen. Paul Sarbanes.

Cardin, a 10-term lawmaker and former speaker of Maryland’s House of Delegates, rolled up more than half the vote against five opponents. His leading opponent, former Rep. (1986-96) and past NAACP head Kweisi Mfume, won 35%.

A pre-primary poll conducted by the Post showed Cardin defeating the Republican nominee, Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, by 49% to 39% statewide. However, the same survey showed that Steele, who is black, is viewed far more positively by black voters in the Free State than his party, with 41% of blacks having a favorable impression of him and only 21% having a favorable impression of the GOP. According to syndicated columnist Robert Novak, “[Steele’s] own surveys show 14% [of black voters favoring him], with an upside potential of 44%. If Steele gets 25% of the black vote, he is probably the winner.”

Democrats are expected to easily hold the Baltimore-area 3rd District held by Cardin with their nominee, attorney John Sarbanes, son of the retiring senator. Young Sarbanes defeated five other candidates.

In possibly the most closely watched Maryland primary, State Comptroller William Donald Schaefer—former mayor of Baltimore (1971-86), governor (1986-94) and easily his state’s most durable politician—lost renomination in a three-candidate race. At 85, Schaefer, Maryland’s least politically correct candidate, was under intense fire for controversial comments ranging from saying a female opponent reminded him of “Mother Hubbard” to complaining he couldn’t order breakfast at a fast-food restaurant because no one spoke English. Schaefer lost to arch-liberal State Delegate Peter Franchot, cousin of late matinee idol Franchot Tone.

Minnesota: New Twist to Big Tent

Although there are several spirited races for Congress in the Gopher State, almost all of those nominees had been decided by party conventions earlier this year. The exception was the heavily Democratic 5th District (St. Paul), held for the last 28 years by retiring Rep. Martin Olav Sabo.

Three Democrats challenged the convention-endorsed candidate, two-term State Rep. Keith Ellison, a liberal who campaigned on universal health coverage and an increase in the minimum wage. But earlier this summer, Ellison was forced to play defense when Republican blogger Michael Brodkorb revealed that the Democrat (a Muslim convert) had written two highly controversial articles under the name “Keith Hakim” while in law school. One defended Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan against charges of anti-Semitism and another suggested white Americans pay reparations to blacks for slavery. The same article revealed that Ellison used the names “Keith X. Ellison” and “Keith Ellison Muhammed” and had worked for the Nation of Islam for 18 months in 1995 to organize Farrakhan’s “Million Man March.”

Ellison apologized that he did not “adequately scrutinize the positions” of Farrakhan. Ellison topped the Democratic field with about 41% of the vote. The runner up (31%) was Tom Erlandson, longtime top aide to Sabo.

New York: Spencer to Meet Hillary

Empire State Republicans nominated conservative John Spencer, a Vietnam veteran and former mayor of Yonkers, to take on Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton. Spencer rolled up more than 60% of the vote against moderate K.T. McFarland, a former Reagan Administration Pentagon spokeswoman. McFarland, whose campaign was run by 1984 Reagan campaign manager Ed Rollins, raised more than $1 million for the losing race. But Spencer, who had started his campaign more than a year ago, was backed by far more GOP county committees and noted that his strong cultural conservative stands would present a greater contrast to Clinton than those of McFarland, who is pro-abortion.

Less than a week before the primary, the last Republican senator from New York gave Spencer a boost. Appearing on the Channel One program “Wise Guys,” former Sen. (1980-98) Al D’Amato said that any Republican who votes for McFarland “ought to be ashamed.” As D’Amato did in all of his races, Spencer also will be on the ballot line of the New York Conservative Party.

Rhode Island: Chafee Dodges Bullet

With all-out backing from the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the blessings of the White House (although he has opposed President Bush on issues ranging from the Iraq War to the nomination of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court), Sen. Lincoln Chafee survived a spirited challenge last week. Liberal GOPer Chafee (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 41%) edged out conservative Cranston Mayor Steve Laffey by 54% to 46%, thanks to support from independents who were able to vote in the GOP primary. In a race that drew national media attention, Laffey slammed the incumbent for his pro-abortion stand, opposition to the Bush tax cuts, and vote against Alito.

But the NRSC weighed in with more than $1 million in television spots, several of which attacked Laffey for his record as mayor and in private business. Laffey, after the primary, nonetheless endorsed Chafee, who now faces a formidable fall race against former State Atty. Gen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a past Democratic gubernatorial candidate.

Wisconsin: ‘On Gard, Dr. Millionaire’

There was only one open House district in which nominees were decided in the Badger State. With Rep. Mark Green leaving Congress to become the Republican candidate against Democratic Gov. James Doyle, Jr., state House Speaker John Gard was the runaway winner of the GOP nomination for the 8th District (Appleton-LaCrosse) seat held by Green for six years.

With early support from state and national party committees, the conservative Gard easily overcame two minor opponents. He now faces what is shaping up as a close fall contest against Democrat Steve Kagen, a wealthy physician. Wary of Kagen’s ability to pour large amounts of personal wealth into his campaign, the NRCC has already been running ads recalling past lawsuits against the Democratic nominee and branding him “Dr. Millionaire.”