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On “Mini-Super Tuesday,” 3 Senate Primaries Could Mark Bellwether for Midterm Elections

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It’s Mini-Super Tuesday, the biggest primary day of the 2010 election cycle. All eyes are on three key Senate primaries: Democratic incumbent Arlen Specter vs. Congress member Joe Sestak in Pennsylvania; two-term Democratic incumbent Blanche Lincoln vs. Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter in Arkansas; and on the Republican side, Secretary of State Trey Grayson vs. political newcomer Rand Paul in Kentucky. We speak to leading pollster Nate Silver of the polling analyst site [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s Mini-Super Tuesday, the biggest primary day of the 2010 election cycle. All eyes are on three key Senate primary contests that have shaped up to be close battles and are seen as a bellwether for the midterm elections in November.

In Pennsylvania’s Democratic primary, incumbent Arlen Specter is in a tight race against Congress member Joe Sestak. Specter is a thirty-year Senate veteran and the former chair of the Judiciary Committee. He switched from Republican to Democrat last year and has the backing of President Obama, organized labor and Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell. But after leading challenger Joe Sestak by as much as 20 points in April, the race is now too close to call. Sestak grabbed late momentum with a TV ad attacking Specter’s Democratic Party credentials.

In Arkansas, two-term Democratic incumbent Blanche Lincoln is in a close primary race against Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter. Halter is receiving the support of labor unions who are unhappy at Lincoln’s decision to oppose the Employee Free Choice Act that she once co-sponsored. Lincoln also opposed a public option in the Senate healthcare bill.

On the Republican side, the Kentucky primary to replace retiring Senator Jim Bunning pits Secretary of State Trey Grayson against political newcomer Rand Paul. Grayson has the backing of the party’s top national leaders, including Kentucky’s own Mitch McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader, and Dick Cheney. Rand Paul, an ophthalmologist and the son of Texas Congress member, also doctor, Ron Paul, has the backing of Tea Party groups and Sarah Palin.

Well, for more on all of this, we’re joined here in our New York studio by leading pollster Nate Silver, the founder of the polling analyst site Nate Silver called the 2008 presidential election down to the last electoral vote.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!

NATE SILVER: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us, Nate. OK, let’s begin in Pennsylvania.

NATE SILVER: Sure. I mean, you know, this is a dramatic finish I think we’re having here, where you have a candidate backed by every part of the Democratic establishment in Arlen Specter, but of course has not been a Democrat for very long, against Joe Sestak, where you have more enthusiasm for him from the internet and so forth. And it looks like it’s coming down right to the wire.

AMY GOODMAN: What’s your prediction?

NATE SILVER: I think Sestak is probably ahead by a couple points in most polls. And if you look at — you know, today it’s very rainy this morning in Philadelphia — that’s where Arlen Specter’s base is — so that might favor him, as well. But I think, you know, people aren’t used to punching the ticket for Arlen Specter, if they’re Democrats in Pennsylvania.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to what’s considered one of the most effective ads, and this is Joe Sestak’s ad. This is what he has been running, attacking Arlen Specter’s Democratic Party credentials.

    REP. JOE SESTAK: I’m Joe Sestak, the Democrat. I authorized this message.

    SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: My change in party will enable me to be reelected.

    NARRATOR: For forty-five years, Arlen Specter has been a Republican politician.

    PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Arlen Specter is the right man for the United States Senate. I can count on this man. See, that’s important. He’s a firm ally.

    NARRATOR: But now…

    SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: My change in party will enable me to be reelected.

    NARRATOR: Arlen Specter switched parties to save one job: his, not yours.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think of this ad, Nate? How effective was it? Did you poll after it started running?

NATE SILVER: I mean, the script kind of writes itself for these ads a little bit. I think the mistake that Specter made was more back in April, when he made the party switch a year ago, where he just — he made it seem so craven. It was so much about the politics, didn’t say, “Oh, I’ve had a moral realization,” you know, like some other politicians do. And that’s very hard to live down, I think. You know, people understand that politicians are politicians, but you have to be a little bit more subtle about it. And he’s eighty years old. Maybe he doesn’t have quite the energy to do that. But, you know, it’s a pretty easy script to write. And by the way, he’ll have the same problems in the general election if he is to win the primary tonight, so —

AMY GOODMAN: Well, this is Arlen Specter’s own campaign ad.

    NARRATOR: President Obama and newspapers across Pennsylvania agree, Arlen Specter is the real deal.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Now, I want to say a few things about Arlen Specter. He came to fight for the working men and women of Pennsylvania. And Arlen Specter cast the deciding vote in favor of Recovery Act, that has helped pull us back from the brink, because you know he’s going to fight for you regardless of what the politics are.

    SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: I’m Arlen Specter, and I approve this message.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I love you, and I love Arlen Specter.

AMY GOODMAN: So there you have it, President Obama endorsing Arlen Specter, the former Republican who’s become a Democrat, who is opposed, by the way, to be Employee Free Choice Act, though he does have union support. But President Obama hasn’t come to Pennsylvania to campaign for Specter.

NATE SILVER: No, he sent Joe Biden. I mean, the White House is kind of in a pickle here, where Specter has case some big votes in their favor, from the stimulus package to the healthcare bill and so forth, but he looks like he might have more trouble in the general election than Joe Sestak would, so I think Biden is kind of their hedge. And, you know, Biden does have some Pennsylvania roots, so it’s not nothing, but, you know, I think for Specter, the more important thing is he has the support of the mayors of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, most of the union backing, so he has a lot of different parts of the establishment working on his behalf.

But, you know, Sestak has more real grassroots kind of energy and momentum. And the internet makes a big difference here, where he gets a lot of funding online from blogs and so forth, and they kind of make up for some of that kind of traditional Democratic infrastructure.

AMY GOODMAN: And you also have Joe Sestak not taking a possible high position in the military or as a cabinet member, cabinet — Secretary of the Navy, which looked like President Obama’s attempt to pull him out of this race a while ago.

NATE SILVER: Sure. Well, you know, Sestak’s a very ambitious guy. I think he’s only been in the Congress for a couple of terms. But, you know, credit to him, he sensed an opportunity here. And one thing, win or lose, he’s helped to push Arlen Specter further to the left. The minute that Joe Sestak announced his primary, you know, Specter has been voting with the Democrats 95-plus percent of the time; before that, he had been more waffling, and of course a Republican before that still. And so, you know, that’s one of the reasons why parties like to have primary challenges, is to get people to vote in line with the party, the right way with the party, before the challenge actually comes to fruition.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to Kentucky. Explain the race there.

NATE SILVER: Well, you have Rand Paul, who’s the son, of course, of Ron Paul, who’s a famous kind of Libertarian Republican. Rand Paul himself is not quite as Libertarian, where, you know, he’s not pro-gay-marriage. He’s kind of ambivalent about things like, you know, drug laws and so forth. He’s mostly just a, you know, conservative Republican who talks a lot about the Federal Reserve and so forth, running in Kentucky, which is, of course, a conservative state, not a Libertarian state. Usually Libertarian states, you think of states where they’re socially liberal and fiscally conservative. Kentucky traditionally is kind of the opposite, where they’re very socially conservative; maybe fiscally they favor somewhat of a welfare state. So he’s kind of an odd fit for that state. But still, he generates again so much more kind of grassroots and online enthusiasm with some support from the Tea Party, that that seems to kind of, you know, carry the day, really, versus an establishment Republican candidate. The establishment GOP is not very popular at all right now. And so, he’s about 15 or 20 points ahead in the polls. He looks pretty safe. It’s probably the least — it will be the least close of the kind of three or four big races tonight.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain, though — oh, well, first of all, who Secretary of State Trey Grayson is, the Kentucky Secretary of State.

NATE SILVER: Well, he was the guy who was waiting out Jim Bunning, who, of course — this kind of very old guy from Kentucky who was kind of senile — everyone wanted to kind of push aside. He very kind of politely waited his turn and waited for kind of Mitch McConnell’s blessing. And, you know, Rand Paul is an ophthalmologist, not someone who was really on anyone’s radar screen at all. So Grayson, although he’s not been — this has not been quite as heated of a campaign as you might have in Pennsylvania, for example — probably feels a little upset, that he thought, you know, he’d waited all this time for Bunning to retire, now all of a sudden someone’s going to kind of steal his thunder.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting when you look at Pennsylvania. On the one hand, people who haven’t voted for — Democrats who haven’t voted for a Republican for thirty years, so that’s Arlen Specter. This is the first chance they’ll be confronted with voting for him and might not do that.

NATE SILVER: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: But lines break down, because in the case in Pennsylvania, Specter was against the surge in Afghanistan; Joe Sestak is a three-star admiral, a two-term congressman, he’s for the surge.

NATE SILVER: That’s right. I mean, if you look at the polling there, it’s not such a clean kind of liberal versus moderate division. It’s kind of all over the map, really. I mean, one thing about Sestak is that even though the blogs support him — that’s a key kind of part of the constituency — you need more than that, too. You know, you need kind of conservative Democrats in western Pennsylvania who are disillusioned with incumbent politicians in general. I’m sure he’ll do actually pretty well with a lot of union voters, even though Sestak might have their endorsements — or Specter might. You know, Sestak, that’s usually his constituency, and they’re going to make up their own minds in a lot of cases, I would think.

AMY GOODMAN: In Kentucky, way under the radar is the Democratic primary that’s also happening today — State Attorney General Jack Conway, Lieutenant Governor Dan Mongiardo, who went against Bunning —-

NATE SILVER: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: —- and almost won.

NATE SILVER: And almost beat Bunning. But Conway seems to poll a bit better in the general election right now. He’s also a bit more to Mongiardo’s left, potentially. But that race is actually going to be closer, I think, than the Republican primary there. It’s kind of fallen off the radar screen because people are so worried about Pennsylvania, where it’s more dramatic, or Arkansas. That one is really too close to call, from the most recent polling.

AMY GOODMAN: So talk about Arkansas. This is a different situation, where it has to do with a runoff.

NATE SILVER: It’s different. So one candidate has to get to 50 percent in Arkansas. It looks like neither one may. And the other complication in Arkansas is you haven’t had any polls come out in about a week and a half, so we’re a little bit in the dark. We don’t know if Bill Halter has had a late surge, like Joe Sestak did.

AMY GOODMAN: Lieutenant Governor.

NATE SILVER: Yeah, in Pennsylvania. But it looks like you have kind of a kind of crazy, dare I say, Libertarian candidate there, as well, who might take up seven or ten percent of the Democratic vote. And if that’s the case, you’re probably headed to a runoff, like they have in a lot of different Southern states.

AMY GOODMAN: Blanche Lincoln, talk about her positions, the current, the incumbent senator.

NATE SILVER: Well, you know, Arlen Specter at least has shifted to the left in the course of the year. I mean, she really hasn’t. She was kind of a thorn in the side of the public option and other parts of healthcare reform; did vote for it in the end; you know, was someone who withdrew their support for EFCA, as you mentioned. Before —-

AMY GOODMAN: Some refer to her as Wal-Mart senator.

NATE SILVER: Yeah, I mean, it’s a state where the senators from Arkansas get about half their donations from PAC money, and a lot of that is Wal-Mart in that state. You know, one problem the Democrats have is they have people who are kind of centrist, but they’re not really populist so much, right? They’re mostly kind of corporate-supported candidates.

It’s changing a little bit, if you look at like a Jon Tester in Montana. Kind of the newer generation Democrats is diffrerent. But this older generation, it’s mostly people who are -— you know, take a lot of corporate money, and that can be reflected sometimes in their politics. And that’s what people are rebelling against, not the fact that you’re going to have — you’re not going to have a super progressive Democrat from Arkansas, but maybe the way in which Lincoln is conservative is not really kind of reflecting her electorate so much as kind of her fundraising donor base, I suppose.

AMY GOODMAN: And Bill Halter, the Lieutenant Governor, has gotten a lot of support from unions, supports EFCA, the Employee Free Choice Act. Talk about his surge. And when would this runoff take place, if Blanche Lincoln doesn’t get the 50 percent?

NATE SILVER: I’m not sure the exact date of the runoff. I think it’s in about three weeks from now. But there’d be — yeah, there’s already been about $8 million in independent expenditures in Arkansas, with the unions especially. They really think that Blanche Lincoln pulled the rug out from EFCA and that her kind of wavering support early on, back in kind of March of last year, when Obama was still polling at 65 percent, is really kind of what undermined that initiative. And so, there’s a lot of — you know, people want a lot of revenge there, I would think. The difference in Arkansas is that, unlike in Pennsylvania, you don’t have kind of this big college-educated, kind of white, blog-reading Democratic base like you do in many other states, right? So even though the net roots are involved and you have kind of national progressives involved, that’s not a big share of the Arkansas electorate, which has a lot of African Americans, which is very kind of rural and working class. So it may be not quite enough, and so Halter would have to keep her below 50 percent tonight and then win the runoff in a few weeks.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Nate Silver, I want to thank you very much for joining us. Of course, we will cover all of this tomorrow, as well. Nate Silver, founder of the polling site

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