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Threat to N.C.’s Dole

A week ago, things were looking pretty sweet for North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R).

The freshman senator had flexed her muscle by spending $6.5 million to solidify her numbers for her first reelection campaign, and still had over $3 million left over at the end of March. Democrats had failed to recruit top-tier candidate Gov. Mike Easley. And Dole was enjoying solid leads in the polls against her potential foes, state Sen. Kay Hagan and businessman Jim Neal — two Democrats locked in a tough primary battle.

Now, if you listen to the Beltway conventional wisdom, contested primaries are terrible, terrible things. The parties work feverishly to “clear the field” for favored candidates, forcing out less-attractive primary opponents regardless of how many feathers are ruffled at the grassroots level. Party officials would prefer that candidates spend time raising money rather than spending it, especially if the opposing party has cleared its own field.

Yet a bitterly contested primary wasn’t a terrible thing for over half of the Senate’s newest members. Ten of the 19 senators first elected in 2004 and 2006 triumphed in contested primaries before defeating general election opponents who had been “blessed” with cleared primary fields.

In 2004, that list included Republicans Tom Coburn in Oklahoma, Jim DeMint in South Carolina, Richard Burr in North Carolina and Lisa Murkowski in Alaska, as well as Democrat Barack Obama in Illinois. In 2006, that list included Democrats Jon Tester in Montana, Jim Webb in Virginia, Bob Casey Jr. in Pennsylvania and Ben Cardin in Maryland, as well as Republican Bob Corker in Tennessee.

There’s a reason that contested primary victors often prevail against opponents coronated by their parties.

Hard-fought primaries allow candidates to test messages, hone skills, build lists, oil their election machines, establish name identification, and enjoy post-primary bounces as their status as “winners” generates a bandwagon effect — all advantages against their all-but-ignored foes.

Elizabeth Dole is now threatened by this dynamic. A month ago, she enjoyed a safe lead in the polls. Last week, Kay Hagan took the Democratic primary with a solid victory. And three days later, after Hagan’s name graced triumphant headlines and the Obama-led Democratic tsunami that hit North Carolina began to recede, Rasmussen fielded its second poll in the Tar Heel State. The new numbers were startling.

Hagan now leads the incumbent Dole 48-47, down from a 53-39 Dole lead in Rasmussen’s previous poll on April 10. That’s a 15-point swing in just over three weeks, joining the Democratic Party’s ever-increasing list of top-tier pickup opportunities in Virginia, New Mexico, Colorado, New Hampshire, Alaska, Minnesota and Oregon.

To be sure, Hagan has a tough road ahead. She raised a respectable $1.5 million for her primary race, but spent about $1.2 million to defeat Jim Neal. Dole has spent money like the NRCC defending a formerly safe House seat, but still has over $3.1 million on hand — a 10-1 cash disparity. Furthermore, while trending Democratic, North Carolina still leans Republican in federal elections.

But with recent history as a guide, those won’t prove to be lasting hindrances. The political and fundraising climates strongly favor Democrats. The lengthy Democratic battle between Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) — supposedly a big problem for Democrats — in fact has generated new political infrastructure in the state as well as 152,000 new Democratic voters (compared to just 14,000 new Republicans).

And while the Democratic Party, like any party, would’ve preferred to give Hagan a free ride in the primary, it was that very primary which has now greatly boosted her ultimate chances for victory.

Moulitsas is founder and publisher of Daily Kos .