Heading into a busy primary day, Republicans around the country are pleading with voters to turn out in high-profile races that will help determine which party controls the Senate for the final two years of President Barack Obama's tenure.
A relatively small slice of the electorate will participate in Republican primaries in Georgia and Kentucky, despite international attention and eye-popping sums of money heaped on several races that will help determine the future of the Republican Party's direction and whether it tilts toward the Tea Party or a more moderate center.
Candidates are making multiple campaign stops urging voters in both states to defy forecasts of abysmal participation in Tuesday's elections.
Turnout in primaries across the nation is notoriously low, but the dynamic stands out in a midterm election year defined by widespread antipathy toward the president and all of Congress.
|TOP OF THE TICKET : Tuesday's top elections are the Republican primaries to pick U.S. Senate nominees in Kentucky, Georgia and Oregon. Oregon Republicans select a challenger to first-term Sen. Jeff Merkley, who only recently emerged as a GOP target. Georgia is a crowded race, and a July runoff is likely. The biggest noise, although probably not the biggest suspense, will come in Kentucky.
BOLDFACE NAMES: Former Federal Emergency Management Agency Director James Lee Witt is running unopposed in the Democratic primary for a U.S. House seat in Arkansas. In Pennsylvania, Chelsea Clinton's mother-in-law and former U.S. Rep. Marjorie Margolies seeks to return to the House representing a district northeast of Philadelphia in a four-way Democratic primary.
AT THE STATEHOUSE : In Arkansas, voters select candidates to replace the term-limited Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe, with two former congressmen - Democrat Mike Ross and Republican Asa Hutchinson - the best known candidates. Four Democrats are seeking the nomination to challenge Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, seen as one of the nation's most vulnerable Republican governors.
In Georgia, incumbent GOP Gov. Nathan Deal has two opponents, while state Sen. Jason Carter, grandson of the former president, is unopposed in the Democratic primary. Two-term incumbent Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter faces state Sen. Russ Fulcher in the GOP primary.
UP NEXT: There's a two-week break after Tuesday, with the next primaries scheduled for June 3 in Alabama, California, Iowa, Mississippi, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico and South Dakota.
GOP SHOWDOWN in KENTUCKY There's probably no one tea party conservatives would rather knock off than Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader who they view as too ready to compromise with Democrats. Their hopes were once high for Matt Bevin, a businessman making his first run for office.
Bevin has struggled with everything from his official biography to an appearance at a cockfighting rally, for which he apologized, but has mostly suffered in the face of withering attacks from McConnell's well-funded political machine.
McConnell positions himself as a solid conservative who makes tough decisions and gives Kentuckians a powerful voice in Washington. If he wins the nomination Tuesday - it will stun Republicans everywhere if he doesn't - his campaign will officially turn its attention to likely Democratic nominee Alison Lundergan Grimes, Kentucky's secretary of state. The two have been sparring for months.
CONTROL OF THE SENATE : Seven Republicans - five well-known and reasonably well-funded - vie for the nomination to succeed retiring GOP Sen. Saxby Chambliss in Georgia, with the top two enduring a July 22 runoff to decide who faces likely Democratic nominee Michelle Nunn. The daughter of former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn, she made news on the final day of the campaign by refusing to say whether she would have voted for President Barack Obama's signature health care law.
Pediatric neurosurgeon Monica Wehby and state Rep. Jason Conger lead a five-person contest for the Republican Senate nomination in Oregon. Some of Wehby's TV ads drew high praise, but the single mother of four faced reports that a wealthy ex-boyfriend called police last year and accused her of stalking him. The man now says he regrets making the call, and he is backing Wehby's campaign.
In Arkansas, the U.S. Senate race will be fiercely contested - this fall. GOP Rep. Tom Cotton and two-term Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor are unopposed in their primaries.
A top Democratic Senate hopeful has her own scrambling to do as she juggles the political realities of Obama's health care overhaul in a state Republicans control.
| In an interview with NBC News leading up to her expected primary victory Tuesday, Georgia's Michelle Nunn refused to say how she would have voted on the Affordable Care Act if she were a senator in 2010. She later tried to clarify her remarks, but still didn't answer the question.
Nunn and Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes - also expected to win her party's nomination Tuesday - are Democrats' best, and perhaps only, shots at picking up Republican-held seats. A Democratic victory in either state would seriously dent Republican hopes of picking up a net of six seats and regaining a Senate majority.
But Nunn will certainly hear about her health care answer once Republicans pick one of seven candidates as their nominee to succeed retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss. Tuesday's primary should send the top two finishers on to a July 22 runoff.
Kentucky voters are poised to set up a long-awaited battle between Grimes and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who's favored to dispatch GOP challenger Matt Bevin in an anticlimactic end to what once looked like a threat to the GOP's top senator.
Senate races also are on the ballot in Arkansas, Idaho and Oregon on Tuesday, and there are primary contests for governor and some congressional seats in Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Idaho, Georgia and Oregon.
In her official capacity as secretary of state, Grimes predicted a 30 percent turnout across Kentucky's two party primaries Tuesday. Only the 1.2 million registered Republicans can vote in the McConnell-Bevin primary.
|In Georgia, several of the top Senate candidates said they expected 600,000 or fewer ballots cast, at least 80,000 less than a crowded primary for governor four years ago. Georgia has about 5 million active registered voters who can choose either major party's ballot in Tuesday's open primary.
Polls suggest former Secretary of State Karen Handel, Rep. Jack Kingston and businessman David Perdue will battle for two runoff posts. Reps. Paul Broun and Phil Gingrey are also running.
"Voters feel very distrustful right now, and voters are frustrated and angry right now," Handel said.
Still, she and her fellow Republicans made clear that they want that frustration - particularly with Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid- to bring loyal Republicans to the polls
In Kentucky, McConnell summoned the same themes to look past the primary. "There's nothing the president and his allies would like better than to defeat the guy you are looking at," he said, casting Grimes as a stand-in for Obama.
"She's able to raise money because she is running against me," McConnell said. "I'm able to raise money because I am me."
Grimes and Nunn have tried to frame themselves as centrists and capitalize on voters' obvious frustrations: Obama's job approval rating is in the low 40s nationally, and approval for Congress in recent years has consistently been less than half that figure.
Nunn continued those tactics Monday amid a rhetorical dance on Obama's health care law. After her awkward exchange with NBC News on a hypothetical 2010 vote on health care, her campaign spokesman released a statement that still avoided the question. The candidate later told The Associated Press that she plans on "continuing to answer the question by talking about where we need to go in the future and how we need to move forward."
Nunn previously has criticized her potential Republican rivals for a "run to extremes," including in their absolute opposition to the health law. And she's called for states, including Georgia, to expand Medicaid eligibility under the law. Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, who also faces a primary challenge Tuesday, has refused.
|Analysis: What will it mean for the Tea Party?
CBS News Political Director Anthony Salvanto writes:
If Mitch McConnell (pictured on the stump, at Left) wins the Kentucky Republican primary Tuesday - polls suggest he leads - some will wonder if the tea party is losing influence. What it's really lost is the element of surprise.
In 2010 and 2012, a lot of Republican incumbents and favorites didn't take on their tea party challenges early and they paid for it, but McConnell took no such chances this spring. He raised millions, mounted an aggressive campaign, and as a result goes into Tuesday night favored against tea party-backed businessman Matt Bevin.
When McConnell, the sitting Senate minority leader, drew this challenge, the political world circled May 20 on the calendar as a big test, not just for incumbent Republicans but as a measure of the animosity toward Congress that Americans have voiced this year. And in that sense, McConnell is hardly done fighting to keep his job even if he does manage to win Tuesday night.
The same anti-Washington sentiment that gave rise to this primary will also pervade the general election, and presumptive Democratic nominee, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, is hoping to use it against McConnell, too, come November. Polls have that potential matchup mostly neck and neck, even in this very red state and even in what figures to be a Republican-leaning year.
So, if nothing else, watch Tuesday's primaries to familiarize yourself with Kentucky. You'll be hearing a lot about it for the next six months.
What to Watch For
As we watch the votes come in and want to see who's winning, are there key places we might expect McConnell or Bevin to do better?
Primaries aren't easy to map from one year to the next, though one recent election offers at least an interesting comparison: before becoming the influential senator he is today, Rand Paul was himself the upstart here in a 2010 primary, running for the GOP nod against the establishment-backed (and Mitch McConnell-endorsed) Trey Grayson for the nomination.
Paul ended up winning that primary fairly easily, 59-35 percent, notching perhaps the biggest tea party victory of that cycle. So, there aren't dramatic differences by county where Paul performed well or poorly in that 2010 primary, but it might teach us a little about a challenger vs. establishment matchup geographically. Paul did best in the relatively more-affluent suburban and outer counties around Louisville, Lexington and Bowling Green. He didn't do as well in the less-affluent coal mining counties of Eastern Kentucky (such as Leslie) as the map below shows.
In fact, for 41 counties where the establishment-based Grayson averaged 38 percent of the vote, a little better than his statewide number, the average household income was just under $32,000; in 11 counties (excluding Louisville) where he averaged 29 percent of the vote, the income averaged $49,000.
In 2010 the tea party-backed Paul tended to do better in counties that were a little larger and more marginally Republican in general elections, as opposed to smaller, overwhelmingly Republican counties. That said, we sometimes see the opposite in primaries, where one-party counties - in this case, heavily Republican counties - are deep enough party bastions that they sustain support for candidates representing multiple constituencies and challengers and establishment candidates run more evenly, while in counties with a tighter Republican-Democratic balance, the Republican voters might be less likely to divide their support between multiple candidates in a primary. We'll watch for which of those patterns, if either, emerges Tuesday night.
The Republican-Democratic balance shows a lot of variation within the state, from Jefferson County (the city of Louisville), which has a 15.7-point Democratic tilt, to Leslie County, which favored Republicans by 26.4 points in the last general election. The more heavily Republican counties in general elections are those same eastern Kentucky counties where Paul didn't do as well.
If we merge these two characteristics - partisan balance and income - and look at some counties that stand out, the map below shows those with the tightest partisan balance and relatively higher incomes and those with less affluence and simultaneously a more lopsided Republican dominance.
In Georgia, a host of Republican candidates are bidding for the Senate nomination and is another state where some - particularly, Democrats - are hoping the recent past repeats itself, as Republicans worry, and Democrats hope, that a crowded primary competition pushes them too far to the right and puts the general election in doubt this November. This one isn't likely to be settled Tuesday night, but rather is likely to go to a runoff in July.
There's some business groups vs. the tea party dynamic here too. Rep. Jack Kingston of Savannah, former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel, and businessman David Perdue appear to have the inside track for that runoff, while candidates further right have lagged in recent polls, but polling primaries - with their uncertain turnout - can be tricky and crowded fields mean even small percentage points matter, so here again, nothing is for sure. Waiting, once all is settled, is likely Democratic nominee Michelle Nunn, whose strong family name in the state (she's the daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn) has Democrats hoping that, coupled with a drawn-out GOP primary, they can make an upset bid for this Republican-leaning state in November.
It's especially challenging to compare past and present primaries with such a large and fragmented field. Still, we have a recent 2012 presidential race between Republicans Mitt Romney and Georgia native Newt Gingrich here to offer some data. Gingrich won easily, and some of his performance pattern is as much attributable to his local base as much as anything, but we might imagine that relatively-stronger Romney areas would be places the establishment GOP candidates will want to target Tuesday.
It's not really on the national radar yet, but on the other side of the country and other side of the partisan divide, Republicans would love to make a long-shot play for the Oregon Senate seat. (It's discussions like this that, whether they come to anything or not, tend to happen when one side is feeling pretty good early in a cycle.)
Neurosurgeon and political newcomer Monica Wehby appeared to be the frontrunner against state Rep. Jason Conger, with some hopeful that if she could secure the nomination, her medical background, coupled with the difficulties faced by Oregon's health insurance exchange, could make for a competitive race in reliably-blue Oregon. From a vote-counting perspective, it's harder to say this primary goes down to the wire, as ballots are cast by mail and have been out for two weeks, so late-breaking campaigning may or may not play a role.
And while the House doesn't look to be in play for November, there are a number of interesting House primaries to watch Tuesday. They include another proxy fight in Idaho's 2nd between incumbent GOP Rep. Mike Simpson, who has the backing of the establishment, but drew criticism from the fiscally conservative Club For Growth and a challenge from Bryan Smith.In Pennsylvania, some well-known names are in play, such as Marjorie Margolies - who once held a congressional seat but lost it in the Republican wave of 1994 after backing President Bill Clinton's budget. Margolies has since become Chelsea Clinton's mother-in-law, and the Clintons have lent their backing to the campaign.