Candidates backed by Washington are facing upstart challengers looking to capitalize on antiestablishment sentiment in primary contests Tuesday in Indiana, North Carolina and Ohio.
The outcome of primaries for the House and Senate could provide clues about the volatility of the electorate and whether anger with the country's direction will translate into actual votes.
Also being tested: how much influence the national parties have over their rank-and-file supporters and, in some cases, the strength of the tea party coalition.
Over the next several months, Republicans and Democrats will choose nominees for key races in states such as Arkansas, Kentucky and Pennsylvania. Losses by incumbent lawmakers could deal major blows to parties looking to hang on to as many seats as possible.
On Tuesday, the spotlight turns to three states, and, in particular, Indiana because its results could illustrate just how dissatisfied Republicans are with the GOP. Candidates preferred by the party establishment in Washington could be in trouble if tea party activists — a mix of conservatives and libertarians hungry for fresh blood in Washington — head to the polls in large numbers.
In the GOP primary for the Senate seat held by the retiring Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh, former Sen. Dan Coats is fighting for the nomination against four others, including two opponents challenging him from the right. They are Marlin Stutzman, a state senator who is a tea party favorite and was endorsed by South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, and John Hostettler, a former congressman who has the support of former presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee recruited Coats, who last held the Senate seat 12 years ago, in hopes that he could easily raise campaign cash and sail to the nomination. But opponents have criticized him as an old-guard lobbyist deeply entrenched in Washington, which could work against him in a year in which voters don't much like the capital or anyone with ties to it.
Democrat Brad Ellsworth's nomination is assured.
In notable House races, 14-term Republican Rep. Dan Burton — Indiana's longest-serving congressman — faces six challengers for his 5th Congressional District seat. They include former state Rep. Luke Messer, who says he represents the "next generation of conservative leadership." And in the 3rd District, Rep. Mark Souder is fighting Bob Thomas, a well-funded auto dealer who says the congressman isn't a true fiscal conservative. Says Souder: "I didn't even know it was legal to be to the right of me."
In North Carolina's 6th Congressional District, Republican Rep. Howard Coble, the longest-serving GOP House member in state history who first won his seat in 1984, is trying to fend off five opponents. They argue that Coble hasn't been strong enough in opposing Democratic spending and didn't carry out Republican Party principles when the GOP controlled Congress.
And in the 8th District, first-term Democratic Rep. Larry Kissell has one Democratic opponent, former campaign volunteer Nancy Shakir, who says she got in the race because of Kissell's opposition to the health care bill. Six Republicans are running for the GOP nomination.
The other North Carolina race to watch is the Democratic primary for the chance to challenge first-term GOP Sen. Richard Burr, who is suffering from low popularity. He has three challengers of his own in the GOP primary but, as an incumbent, is expected to easily win the nomination.
Cal Cunningham, a former North Carolina state senator who went to Iraq as an Army prosecutor, is the favored choice of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and he's looking to withstand spirited challenges from five others, including Secretary of State Elaine Marshall and attorney Ken Lewis. A candidate will need 40 percent of the vote to avoid a two-person June 22 runoff.
In Ohio, Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher, a former Ohio attorney general backed by Democrats in Washington and Gov. Ted Strickland, was leading in pre-primary surveys against Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, an election lawyer and former judge. The two are battling for the Democratic nomination to fill the Senate seat of retiring Republican George Voinovich.
The winner will face former Rep. Rob Portman, the budget director and trade representative under George W. Bush. Portman's GOP nomination is certain.
Associated Press writers Julie Carr Smyth in Columbus, Ohio, Deanna Martin in Indianapolis and Mike Baker and Gary Robertson in Raleigh, N.C., contributed to this report.
Eds: CORRECTS Kissell has one opponent, not 5 in NC House race.
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