INDIANAPOLIS – Former Sen. Dan Coats, the Washington establishment's favored Republican, opened up a comfortable early lead in the GOP primary in Indiana on Tuesday and voters in North Carolina and Ohio made their choices in House and Senate primaries.
With votes from a third of Indiana's counties, Coats moved ahead of state Sen. Marlin Stutzman, a tea party favorite, and former Rep. John Hostettler. Democrat Brad Ellsworth's nomination is assured. The candidates are seeking retiring Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh's seat.
In one notable House race, 14-term Republican Rep. Dan Burton — Indiana's longest-serving congressman — was in a close race, trying to fend off six challengers for his 5th Congressional District seat.
Turnout was exceptionally light in Indiana, Ohio and North Carolina, a possible indication that the anger fueling voters across the country over economic woes, persistently high unemployment and Congress itself wasn't translating into votes — and, perhaps, the limited influence of the conservatives and libertarians who make up the fledgling tea party coalition.
"We rebuilt the pyramids and recarved the Grand Canyon in our spare time," joked poll worker Dina Roberts, who saw only 147 voters in nearly 12 hours at her downtown Indianapolis polling site. Elsewhere, Vanderburgh County clerk Susan Kirk said: "We've just pretty well sat here and read books most of the day."
And North Carolina's director of the State Board of Elections projected turnout to be slightly above 2006 levels, when only 12 percent of voters cast a primary ballot. Said elections chief Gary Bartlett: "I was hoping for more."
In all three states, candidates backed by Democratic and Republican leaders in Washington are squaring off against challengers drawing their support from elsewhere. While it's difficult to draw concrete conclusions about the state of the country from just a few races, the results will give some idea of whether the national parties still can influence rank-and-file supporters.
At the very least, the outcome of Tuesday's primaries — the first set of contests in the two months since Texas held its February primary — will set the stage for November's congressional matchups and provide early insights about voter attitudes ahead of this fall's elections.
Coats — recruited by the National Republican Senatorial Committee before Bayh decided to retire — is fighting for the GOP nomination against four others. Stutzman was endorsed by South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint. Hostettler is a former congressman who has the support of former presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas.
Coats, 66, retired from the Senate in 1998. He has worked as a lobbyist and was U.S. ambassador to Germany under President George W. Bush.
Elsewhere, Rep. Mark Souder easily won the GOP nomination in the 3rd District after a nasty campaign; Souder will face Democrat Tom Hayhurst in the fall.
In North Carolina's 6th Congressional District, Republican Rep. Howard Coble, who first won his seat in 1984, is trying to fend off five opponents. And in the 8th District, first-term Democratic Rep. Larry Kissell is facing one challenger.
Also, six Democrats are competing in the Democratic primary for the chance to challenge first-term GOP Sen. Richard Burr, whose public approval numbers in North Carolina are lower than expected. Among the Democrats are Cal Cunningham, a former state senator who is the favored choice of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and Secretary of State Elaine Marshall. 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, is facing Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner. 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.
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