With few clear winners -- and a handful of surprisingly feisty challenge campaigns -- Tuesday's primaries in North Carolina seemed a perfect symbol for today's volatile political climate.
For Democrats, they also signaled something more ominous: That the blue-trending state's Democratic voters are divided and demoralized, an especially unwelcome prospect in a year that's already likely to favor Republicans.
Divisions in the party were clear in the marquee race for choosing a Democratic challenger to once-vulnerable Sen. Richard Burr (who locked up 80% of the GOP vote). In a six-way race, Secretary of State Elaine Marshall garnered just 36% of the vote, failing to avoid a run-off with former state Rep. Cal Cunningham (27%).
Marshall is favored to beat Cunningham in the run-off. Despite Cunningham's army of young supporters and support from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Marshall still benefits from high name recognition and establishment reach from her years in state-wide office.
A poll by Public Policy Polling also found that Marshall is expected to pick up the majority of voters for Tuesday's third-place finisher, Durham attorney Ken Lewis. Lewis' base among African-American voters and progressives was good for 17% of Tuesday's vote, and PPP found that black voters would break to Marshall by a 2:1 margin over Cunningham in a run-off.
The lack of a dominant U.S. senate hopeful wasn't the only sign of turmoil among N.C. Democrats.
Incumbent Reps. Larry Kissel (D-8th) and Heath Shuler (D-11th), who both voted against the Democrats' signature health reform bill in March, were both rattled by surprisingly vibrant challenge campaigns from the party's left. Even though the incumbents pulled through, their opponents revealed deep divisions in the Democratic base that could translate into problems this November.
In the 8th Congressional district, Nancy Shakir, an outspoken progressive in Fayetteville, won 37% of the primary vote in a campaign that attacked Kissel's role in the health care debate -- the latest in a series of votes that have alienated Kissel from his progressive base.
Equally surprising was the strong showing of Aixa Wilson, an archeologist with no political experience who still took 38% of the vote away from Shuler in the NC-11 contest.
For Democrats, it gets worse. Not only did Tuesday show the base is divided; it's also demoralized. In a year when Democrats are going to need all the energy and enthusiasm they can muster, an analysis by Public Policy Polling this morning found instead dwindling turnout and apathy in N.C.:
What the turnout numbers do show is a disturbing lack of interest from Democratic voters. The 426,000 who cast a ballot in the Senate primary represents a 32% decline from the 628,000 who did in 2002, and this is despite the fact that after the 2008 election cycle there are more registered Democrats in the state than ever.
All of which, of course, is music to North Carolina Republicans' ears.