INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — It turned out anger didn’t translate at the ballot box.
Voters in North Carolina and Ohio kept their incumbents while those in Indiana turned to an old Capitol Hill hand — Republican Dan Coats — in Tuesday’s primaries despite the nation’s bottom-of-the-barrel support for Congress and frustration with the Washington establishment.
Coats, who was recruited by the National Republican Senatorial Committee, will face Democrat Brad Ellsworth, whose nomination is assured. The candidates are seeking the seat held by retiring Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh.
Coats, 66, retired from the Senate in 1998, has worked as a lobbyist and was U.S. ambassador to Germany under President George W. Bush. He overcame spirited challenges from four opponents, including state Sen. Marlin Stutzman, a tea party favorite who was endorsed by South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, and former Rep. John Hostettler, who had the support of one-time presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas.
Democrats quickly piled on, calling Coats a “deeply flawed candidate” and casting him as a Washington insider beholden to special interests.
Turnout was exceptionally light in Ohio and North Carolina, a possible indication that voter anger over economic woes, persistently high unemployment and Congress itself wasn’t influencing elections — and, perhaps, a reflection of the limited influence of the conservatives and libertarians who make up the fledgling tea party coalition.
“We rebuilt the pyramids and recarved the Grand Canyon in our spare time,” joked poll worker Dina Roberts, who saw only 147 voters in nearly 12 hours at her downtown Indianapolis polling site.
By the end of the day, however, the Republican turnout in the Indiana Senate primary was the highest this decade, including presidential election years.
In all three states, candidates backed by party leaders in Washington squared off against challengers drawing their support from elsewhere. While it’s difficult to draw concrete conclusions about the state of the country from just a few races, the results gave some idea of whether the national parties still can influence rank-and-file supporters.
At the very least, the outcome of Tuesday’s primaries — the first set of contests in the two months since Texas held its February primary — set the stage for November’s congressional matchups and provided early insights about voter attitudes ahead of this fall’s elections.
Among the notable House races in Indiana, 14-term Republican Rep. Dan Burton — Indiana’s longest-serving congressman — struggled but managed to fend off six challengers for his 5th Congressional District seat, and Rep. Mark Souder easily won the GOP nomination in the 3rd District after a nasty campaign.
In North Carolina’s 6th Congressional District, Republican Rep. Howard Coble, who first won his seat in 1984, easily beat five opponents. And in the 8th District, first-term Democratic Rep. Larry Kissell survived a primary challenge from one of his former campaign volunteers.
The state’s first-term Republican Sen. Richard Burr, whose public approval numbers are lower than expected, easily won his party’s nomination. Democrats won’t decide his general election opponent until a June 22 runoff, as none of the six candidates achieved the 40 percent of the vote necessary to win outright.
The runoff will pit Secretary of State Elaine Marshall against Cal Cunningham, a former state senator who is the favored choice of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
In Ohio, Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher, a former state attorney general backed by Democrats in Washington, withstood a challenge from Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner. The two sought the nomination to fill the Senate seat of retiring Republican George Voinovich. Fisher will face former Rep. Rob Portman, the budget director and trade representative under George W. Bush.
Sidoti reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Mike Baker in Raleigh, N.C., and Julie Carr Smyth in Columbus, Ohio, contributed to this report.