Primary voters will set the stage today for high-stakes U.S. Senate battles in New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Minnesota, the last expected to feature a rematch between liberal Democrat Paul Wellstone and Rudy Boschwitz, the Republican he ousted six years ago.
In all, eight states hold primaries on the last big day of voting before November. Primaries for governor are on tap in Vermont and New Hampshire, and congressional races top the ballot in Arizona, Connecticut, New York and Wisconsin.
The primaries come as Democrats, optimistic about President Clinton’s chances for re-election, look to regain the ground they lost in 1994 in Congress. The GOP now holds a 53-47 edge in the Senate.
In New Hampshire, no Democrat has been elected to the U.S. Senate in two decades. But the national party considers Sen. Bob Smith vulnerable and has made denying the Republican a second term a priority.
Smith has been criticized for displaying a plastic fetus and graphic photos and drawings in a Senate floor speech opposing partial-birth abortions, and for going on for 45 minutes on the danger to people that elephants posed during a circus performance at the U.S. Capitol in April.
“With Bob Smith down in Washington, New Hampshire’s not getting any respect,” said Bob Quinn, the state Democratic Party’s executive director.
The two Democrats competing to face Smith are businessman John Rauh, who lost the Senate race in 1992, and former Rep. Dick Swett. In 1990, Swett became the first Democrat elected in the 2nd Congressional District in seven decades.
In Rhode Island, Democratic Rep. Jack Reed and Republican state Treasurer Nancy Mayer are expected to easily win their respective primaries in the race to succeed Democratic Sen. Claiborne Pell, who is retiring after six terms.
Minnesota is also holding Senate primaries in both parties, but most see it as a formality before November’s rematch between Wellstone and Boschwitz.
Wellstone, the only senator up for re-election who voted against the welfare reform measure, had been seen as highly vulnerable. However, a recent newspaper and television poll found him leading Boschwitz. Forty-six percent favored Wellstone and 37 percent favored Boschwitz in the poll, which had a margin of error of 4 percentage points.
The New Hampshire governor’s race was thrown wide open when Republican Steven Merrill decided not to seek re-election.
State Sen. Jeanne Shaheen is seeking to become the first Democrat elected governor in 16 years. Shaheen, an architect of New Hampshire presidential primary victories by Jimmy Carter and Gary Hart, faces token opposition in the Democratic primary.
Five candidates are on the GOP primary ballot. A poll late last week indicated a close finish between front-runners Rep. Bill Zeliff and Ovide Lamontagne, chairman of the state Board of Education. Previous polls had shown Zeliff with a substantial lead.
The primary to succeed Zeliff in Congress features seven Republicans, including political newcomer and businessman John E. Sununu, son of former Gov. John Sununu.
In Wisconsin Rep. Steve Gunderson, one of only two openly gay House Republicans, is retiring from the 3rd District in the western part of the state. A write-in effort is being mounted by his supporters, although Gunderson has said he does not endorse it.
Arizona Rep. Jim Kolbe, the other openly gay House Republican, faces minor primary opposition. Kolbe revealed his homosexuality this summer when a gay magazine said it planned to “out” him because of his vote against recognizing same-sex marriages.