The spring fling of primary season

May will be a decisive month for the political fortunes of both parties as several big states hold Senate primaries.

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Primaries from Arkansas to Pennsylvania will be a bellwether of voters’ frustrations and answer questions that have had political watchers scratching their heads: Will Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) go down under a tide of anti-incumbent anger? Will the Tea Party give the GOP trouble in Kentucky? Will Sen. Arlen Specter, the Republican-turned-Democrat, win his first votes of confidence from Pennsylvania Democrats? 

Here are some of the big races to watch:

Indiana — 

May 4

Republicans are confident that former Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) will successfully negotiate the May 4 primary. He has more name recognition than former Rep. John Hostettler (R-Ind.), his main rival for the nomination, and should be a better fundraiser — although his first-quarter numbers, which he waited until the April 15 deadline to release, were a dud. Coats has raised only $379,000 since joining the race.

Meanwhile, Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D) won’t have a primary because Sen. Evan Bayh’s (D-Ind.) late withdrawal from the race meant the party got to pick its candidate instead of holding an election. Ellsworth raised $625,000 in the first quarter and will benefit from the $1 million campaign kitty Bayh transferred to the state party.

North Carolina — 

May 4

Washington Democrats have picked their horse in the North Carolina Senate primary.

Former state Sen. Cal Cunningham, who was awarded the bronze star for his service with the Army Reserves in Iraq, is seen by D.C. strategists as the front-runner for the Democratic nod to face Sen. Richard Burr (R). But he first has to get through the May 4 primary, where he faces stiff competition from Secretary of State Elaine Marshall (D) and Durham attorney Ken Lewis (D).

Marshall is considered Cunningham’s biggest threat because of her statewide name recognition and solid campaign infrastructure, but Lewis isn’t going away. He was quick to attack Cunningham at the first televised candidates’ debate Wednesday night in Raleigh. 

Cunningham has been endorsed by the Winston-Salem Journal editorial board and the North Carolina chapter of the Sierra Club. He’s also up with the only TV ad of the Democratic primary.

But there’s one dark-horse candidate generating some buzz in the race. Democrat Ann Worthy, stepmother of North Carolina native and NBA great James Worthy, is also running for the nomination. 

Democrats are quietly optimistic about this seat, despite the national environment favoring the GOP. Burr’s seat, after all, is considered cursed — it changes parties every six years.

Ohio — 

May 4

Former Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) avoided a primary challenge from wealthy car dealer Tom Ganley and now is looking past the May 4 primary. Portman raised $2.35 million in the last three months and now has $7.6 million banked for the general.

On the Democratic side, Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner and Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher are battling for the nomination. Fisher quietly announced Wednesday that he’d raised about $551,000 during the first quarter of the year, leaving him $1.8 million to spend on the primary.

Brunner waited until the April 15 deadline to release her numbers. She had only $61,000 in the bank at the end of 2009.

Arkansas — 

May 18

The Democratic primary contest between Lt. Gov. Bill Halter (D) and Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) is degenerating into a Southern-style donneybrook. There are reports of push polls and whisper campaigns and, of course, TV attack ads are omnipresent. Halter’s latest spot says, “Lincoln voted to cut our Social Security benefits and to raise taxes on Social Security” while a disgruntled senior shakes his head.

The Republican side, which also votes on May 18, has been far more genteel by comparison. Rep. John Boozman’s first TV ad made no mention of his primary opponents. That could be because some polls have shown him with a considerable lead — a survey out Thursday by Washington-based and Democratic-leaning Zata3 had him up by 32 points.

Kentucky — 

May 18

Both parties have competitive races in this May 18 primary. On the GOP side, Dr. Rand Paul has the energy and the support of Tea Party activists, while Secretary of State Trey Grayson (R) has the backing of the party establishment — albeit with a notable exception. Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), who’s retiring, announced Thursday he is backing Paul over Grayson. Analyst Charlie Cook and others have predicted that the GOP will retain the seat if Grayson is the nominee. That said, state Attorney General Jack Conway (D) could stand a chance if he survives the primary against Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo (D) and the three other candidates.

Pennsylvania — 

May 18

The long-running Arlen Specter-Joe Sestak battle will finally come to a head on May 18. The incumbent senator launched the first TV ads of the campaign this week, which touted his record on job creation and protecting workers’ pensions. Sestak responded with a dated reference to Specter’s support for NAFTA, which likely won’t be enough to close the double-digit gap some polls show between the two Democrats. Sestak has some $5 million in the bank — it’s just a matter of how he wants to spend it.

On the GOP side, Johnstown activist Peg Luksik isn’t expected to give former Rep. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) much of a scare.