Primary Season Revs Up: 6 Key Races in North Carolina, Ohio, and Indiana

A man leaves an early voting poling place in Lonoke, Ark., May 5, 2014. (Danny Johnston/AP Photo)

The primary season is truly upon us as North Carolina, Ohio , and Indiana host primaries today. Twenty-five states will hold primaries in the next six weeks and today's key one to watch will take us into a fight that will play out all over this country in the coming weeks: the establishment GOP vs. the Tea Party and whether the establishment can finally put down the Tea Party rebellion and re-take the Senate. We'll also watch as a possible 2016 proxy fight between Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, and even Mike Huckabee erupts in North Carolina.

WHO'S ON THE BALLOT? From a former American Idol runner-up to a candidate who is taking on Speaker John Boehner with an ad that ripped off a Cialis commercial, voters have several colorful candidates on their primary ballots today. Here are six things to watch for as primary season revs up:

ESTABLISHMENT VS. TEA PARTY AND A PROXY 2016 FIGHT BREWING: The Republican Senate primary in North Carolina is today's key race and pits the establishment against the Tea Party. Thom Tillis, speaker of the North Carolina House, is the establishment candidate backed by Jeb Bush and, just yesterday, Mitt Romney. Greg Brannon, a physician, is the Tea Party and libertarian favorite and Rand Paul joined him on the campaign trail Monday calling him a "dragon slayer." Mark Harris, a preacher, is the Evangelical choice who has galvanized social conservatives, and has been backed by Mike Huckabee. Huckabee recorded a robo-call on behalf of Harris that went out to 300,000 registered Republicans between Saturday to Monday. Candidates must get 40 percent of the vote to avoid a July 15 th run-off. Polls show Tillis leading with Brannon in second, but with Tillis just barely clearing that 40 percent mark. Paul's last-minute campaign trail stop could help ensure Brannon makes it to a run-off, but that will extend the intra-party battle instead of focusing their fight against incumbent Democrat Sen. Kay Hagan. And as mentioned above, it's also being seen as a possible 2016 proxy fight between Bush and Paul as well as Huckabee. The battle between the establishment and the Tea Party will play out in the following weeks as similar primaries are held from coast to coast, but today is our first glimpse.

AN AMERICAN IDOL RUNNER AIMS TO BE A RUNNER UP NO MORE: American Idol 2003 runner up Clay Aiken is facing off in the Democratic primary against businessman Keith Crisco, a former state commerce secretary from Asheboro, and Toni Morris, a counselor from Fayetteville. It's a fun celeb-tinged race to watch, but there has been no public polling in this Democratic primary so it's difficult to predict which way this race will go. Aiken has been outspent by Crisco and he has run four television ads to Aiken's one. Even if Aiken comes out victorious this evening it may be for naught as the winner will take on incumbent Republican Rep. Renee Elmers who is heavily favored to win. She has outraised Aiken by almost six times, but if he does win he may reel in some national Democratic money on his name recognition alone.

A CHALLENGER FROM THE RIGHT POUNCES: Rep. Walter Jones has been representing his district for 20 years, but he is being challenged from the right by GOP consultant and former aide to President George W. Bush and the McCain campaign, Taylor Griffin. Jones is in line to be the second most senior Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, but this challenge from within his own party is one to watch. Griffin has been able to fundraise as much as Jones and Jones-who is well known for voting for the Iraq war and then becoming one of the most vocal members of the GOP against it-has become one of the most vulnerable Republicans this year. Griffin is seen as more conservative than Jones because of his foreign policy views, while Jones has tried to pit Griffin as a "Washington insider."

THE SPEAKER GETS A CHALLENGE: House Speaker John Boehner is heading off two challengers and it has been quite a colorful race, despite Boehner being heavily favored to win. He is facing Eric Gurr, a computer consultant, and J.D. Winteregg, a high school French teacher. Boehner will win, but while past elections have been non-events he is facing challengers and some outside money being thrown at him. Boehner even ran two rounds of television ads in the district, the first time in four years. Winteregg has been able to drum up publicity for himself by releasing an online parody video in the same style as the drug Cialis. It was a not-so-subtle spin on the speaker's first name and it claimed Winteregg offers the remedy for "electile dysfunction" personified by Boehner and it warns the 12-term congressman "shouldn't count his chickens before they hatch." Winteregg ended up getting t ossed from an adjunct teaching position at Cedarville University, a Christian college, after the suggestive video aired. The Tea Party Leadership Fund, based in Virginia, has spent about $325,000 on behalf of Winteregg and against Boehner, according to their group's treasurer Dan Backer. Backer said they also raised another $66,000 for Winteregg. He said they are "deeply hopeful and somewhat sitting on eggshells," adding that he doesn't "know if he will win, but we have done everything we could to help."


THE SNOOZER: The Hoosier State has been known for some wild primaries. In 2012, longtime GOP Senator Richard Lugar had a shocking loss in a primary against Richard Mourdock, who then lost to Democrat Joe Donnelly. But, this time around there are really no exciting races. As Robert Dion, who heads the political science department at the University of Evansville, told the Palladium-Item: "After all the gnashing of teeth of the last few election cycles, it's hard to stay awake through this one." Neither of Indiana's senators are on the ballot and all nine House incumbents are seeking re-election so there are no open seat battles.


Today's primary election in North Carolina will be the first time voters go to the polls since the state's new voting law was passed in August by the state's GOP governor and legislature. Today may not prove to be a true test of the law because turnout is usually low in primary contests and the highest-profile requirement of the new law, having to show government issued ID at the polls, does not go into effect until 2016. But, voting rights advocates will still be keeping an eye on some of the law's provisions like a ban on same-day registration and restrictions on early voting.