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Two ways to fight a war

Not all civil wars are created equal.

Stung by talk about the ideological war going on inside their party, Republicans have pointed to hotly contested Democratic primaries in Kentucky, Arkansas and Pennsylvania to claim equivalency.

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You see, they argue, it’s not just conservatives who are dealing with ideologue insurgents. The left is doing it, too.

Sure, to a point. Difference is, we’re being smart about our primaries, supporting candidates who are more in line with their states than the incumbents and who have a better chance of winning the general election. Conservative insurgents are almost uniformly pushing candidates further outside the mainstream, and who poll poorly against Democrats in November.

In Arkansas, polling shows Lt. Gov. Bill Halter running several points stronger than Sen. Blanche Lincoln in November match-ups, without carrying the incumbency baggage that will limit Lincoln’s political upside. Same thing in Pennsylvania, where Rep. Joe Sestak runs several points stronger than Sen. Arlen Specter, with room to grow. In Kentucky, the more progressive Democrat, Attorney General Jack Conway, runs stronger than Liebermanesque conserv-a-Dem Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo.

Meanwhile, plenty of “moderate” Democrats are cruising to their nominations without significant primary opposition. The reason is clear — elected officials exist to serve their constituents. So long as they effectively do so, progressive activists will generally give them wide latitude. You don’t get to be in big trouble like Lincoln or Specter because your state loves you too much.

Contrast that with conservative activists, who are doing their best to minimize Republican gains this November.

In Florida, Republicans lost a surefire Senate winner in Gov. Charlie Crist, and are now locked in a real dogfight to keep the seat with conservative golden child Marco Rubio. Independent Crist is surging in the polls, and his aggressive move to the left is marginalizing the real Democrat in the race, Kendrick Meek. If Crist can consolidate Democratic support (rumors say fiercely liberal former Rep. Robert Wexler may be a Crist endorser) then Republicans will be in danger of blowing a sure-thing hold on that seat.

In Kentucky, establishment choice Republican Trey Grayson had nearly double-digit leads against potential Democratic foes, while insurgent conservative hero Rand Paul ran even. If Paul won Tuesday (this was written before results came in), Republicans will have traded a near-guaranteed hold for a toss-up race in deep-red territory.

In Colorado, conservative activists push a county district attorney, Ken Buck, over establishment choice Gale Norton, a former Interior secretary. Sen. Jim DeMint, who is tormenting his colleagues by pushing insurgents like Rubio against his party’s choices, claims Buck is the second coming of Rubio. Democrats can only hope so, as he runs weaker than Norton in general-election match-ups.

In Arizona, Sen. John McCain enjoys a commanding lead in general-election polling. But conservatives hope former Rep. J.D. Hayworth ends McCain’s career, and polling shows McCain dipping under the 50 percent mark. Democrats are rooting for Hayworth, because in general-election polling, Hayworth trails Democrat Rodney Glassman.

In Texas, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison would’ve been an easy victor in this November’s gubernatorial race. Yet her party’s primary voters renominated über-right-wing Gov. Rick Perry, who now faces the very real prospect of losing the statehouse to Democrat Bill White.

From California to New Hampshire, Indiana to Nevada, and even Connecticut, conservative entries in primaries perform more poorly than the official GOP establishment-backed candidates, uniformly, without exception.

And when comparing to progressive primary challenges, that distinction makes all the difference.

Moulitsas is founder and publisher of Daily Kos (dailykos.com).