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May Southern Primaries Set Up GOP for Fall Battles

The GOP's chances at taking the Senate could hinge on May's votes.

by
Rich Baehr

Bio

May 5, 2014 - 9:45 am

Kimberley Strassel has an article in the Wall Street Journal suggesting that an array of conservative groups, including Tea Party organizations, seem headed for a string of defeats in GOP primaries in their attempts to knock off Republican Senate incumbents.  Most of those efforts are in states where the Republican nominee, whether the incumbent or a challenger, is likely to win in  November (e.g., Mississippi, Texas, South Carolina). Kentucky is the exception: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell seems headed for a decisive primary victory on May 20 against Matt Bevin; after that, McConnell faces a close fall matchup to retain his seat against Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes.

In the election cycles of 2010 and 2012, Republican contests in several Senate primaries produced either hopelessly unelectable nominees such as Christine O’Donnell, or badly flawed candidates such as Sharron Angle, Ken Buck, Todd Akin, and Richard Mourdock. All of these candidates self-destructed in the general election campaign, losing winnable races. In each of these cases, the eventual nominee ran well to the right of more mainstream incumbents (Richard Lugar) or other primary contestants.

The GOP hopes for taking control of the Senate in November (by picking up a net six seats) rely on winning two open seats now held by Democrats in South Dakota and West Virginia, and the seat held by a recently appointed replacement senator in Montana. After these three races, all of which now look very good for the GOP, the task gets harder. They must defeat incumbents in Louisiana (Mary Landrieu), North Carolina (Kay Hagan), Arkansas (Mark Pryor), and Alaska (Mike Begich). Two other open seat races held by Democrats (Iowa and Michigan) and two other incumbents (Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire and Jeff Merkley in Oregon) now face bigger challenges than many expected.

In Georgia, the seat of retiring Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss has produced a wide open GOP primary. Five candidates at one time or another have held the lead, and four of the five are still tightly bunched just days out from the May 20 primary (only Congressman Phil Gingrey has faded).

Georgia has become reliably Republican over the last five presidential races and in other statewide races, but is now experiencing rapid demographic shifts that favor Democrats. Mitt Romney won the state by 7%, but the Obama campaign did not actively work the state as they did North Carolina or Virginia. The state’s rapidly expanding economy has attracted hundreds of thousands of Asians and Latinos, and the Atlanta area has always been an attractive location for African Americans, and many are moving to or returning to the area from other states.

All of these minority groups have become strong parts of the Democratic base. Unlike the experience in some other Southern states, the history of race relations in Atlanta evolved differently than in other locations due to more constructive interactions between blacks and the business community. The fact that Atlanta won the Olympic Games for 1996, while Chicago — with hometown President Barack Obama — could not even survive the first vote for the 2016 games is evidence of that.

Georgia may still not be at a tipping point for the Democrats, but the party has nominated a solid candidate for the open Senate seat. Michelle Nunn is the daughter of former Senator Sam Nunn, who was known as a defense hawk and a moderate (“blue dog”) with crossover appeal. Michelle Nunn has not had any primary challenge to worry about. She has spent her time raising money, much of it out-of-state, and traveling around to play off her good family name and introduce herself to voters as a first-time nominee. In a year when Congress is very unpopular with voters, being a nominee with no history in D.C. is a plus.

On the GOP side, three of the five leading contenders — Paul Broun and Jack Kingston, in addition to Gingrey — are current U.S. House members, which means they have a proven base of support in 1/14 of the state, but they will have to defend congressional voting records in the general election. Two of the three House member candidates — Broun and Gingrey — are a bit worrisome to some GOP officials, having made previous comments in the Akin/Mourdock mold.

Two of the leading contenders are not Washington officials. Karen Handel is a former Georgia secretary of State, and businessman David Perdue is the former CEO of Dollar General and cousin of former Governor Sonny Perdue. In the most recent surveys, Perdue leads and Handel has moved closer. Kingston is running the best of the three House members, and leads in one survey out last week, which also shows him with the best favorable/unfavorable ratings of the candidates. Kingston has moved up, bolstered by a big ad buy from the Chamber of Commerce. Since none of the candidates will come close to securing 50% of the vote, a July 22 runoff among the top two in the primary will follow. Stuart Rothenberg rates the race Leans Republican, but until the nominee is known this is still a potential upset race for the Democrats.

In Arkansas, the GOP challenger to Mark Pryor has been known for months, as the field was cleared for Congressman Tom Cotton — a military veteran, former McKinsey consultant, and a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School. The last Arkansas candidate with this kind of glittering pedigree (absent the military angle, of course) was Bill Clinton. Arkansas is a state that has been moving to the Republicans at a rapid rate. The party has won the last four presidential contests — by big margins in 2008 and 2012 (20% or more each time) — and took away a Senate seat from incumbent Blanche Lincoln in 2010 with a landslide victory by then-Congressman John Boozman.

The Democratic Senate incumbent — first-term Senator Mark Pryor — will be a stiff test for Cotton, whom many in the party see as a possible future candidate on a national ticket. The Pryor family, much like the Landrieu family in Louisiana, has been producing candidates who win elections in their states for decades. A few early polls gave Cotton a lead in the general election contest, and some pundits declared him the favorite. Pryor has done much better in recent surveys, suggesting this will be a tough, close battle through November. Both Cotton and Pryor will be formally nominated in the primary election on May 20.

North Carolina represents a big opportunity for the GOP. While Mitt Romney won the presidential contest by only 2% in 2012, the off-year turnout is likely to be more favorable to the GOP. The GOP primary to take on first-term Senator Kay Hagan has been a crowded affair, but Thom Tillis, the speaker of the North Carolina State House and a favorite of many party professionals, has opened up a big lead in recent polls and seems headed for victory. The key will be whether Tillis can secure 40% of the vote in the primary this coming Tuesday, May 6. If not, he will face a runoff against the second place finisher on July 15. At the moment, Tillis is right around the 40% mark, and given the number of undecided voters, he has a decent shot at winning the nomination.

Oddly for the candidate favored by much of the GOP establishment, Tillis’ head-to-head numbers versus Hagan have been weaker than those of some of his primary opponents, Greg Brannon, Mark Harris, and Heather Grant. Brannon, a Tea Party favorite,  appears to have the best chance to make it into a runoff if Tillis fails to hit the 40% level in the primary race.

In 2008 when she was elected over Elizabeth Dole, Hagan started behind, but then came on strong and won decisively. Her vote on Obamacare will hurt her in North Carolina, as will Pryor’s vote for the legislation in the Arkansas race. Since the bill got the minimum 60 votes needed to break the filibuster in the Senate, every Democrat who supported it can be singled out as the prime culprit for the legislation passing.

If a GOP wave builds in 2014 as it did in 2010, the GOP nominee is likely to hold the Georgia Senate seat, and McConnell may survive in Kentucky. Such a wave would also lift GOP chances in the southern pickup opportunity states of Louisiana, North Carolina, and Arkansas, all of which now look to be tight races to the end.

Richard A. Baehr is the co-founder and chief political correspondent for the American Thinker. For his day job, he has been a health care consultant for many years doing planning and financial analyses for providers.

Comments are closed.

Top Rated Comments   
In at least three of the cases you listed the GOP nominee would have won if the establishment GOP had held their noses and voted for the GOP nominee. Instead anywhere from 12 - 20% of registered GOP voters voted for the Dim. Yet you same establishment types have the unmitigated gall to tell conservatives they need to hold their noses and vote for the GOP nominee if (s)he is an establishment type.
15 weeks ago
15 weeks ago Link To Comment
Does anyone need to point out that, had Governor Chris Christie appointed a Republican to serve out the deceased Frank Lautenberg's term in the Senate, last Fall, the Republicans would now only need to pick up FIVE Senate seats to win control?

Thanks for nothing, Governor Christie.
15 weeks ago
15 weeks ago Link To Comment
In other words, the French Republicans would rather that the Dems kept the Senate than get a majority that includes more Tea Party senators.

The French Republicans lecture us about uniting behind their candidate but support Dems in the general election when a Tea Party candidate wins the primary.
15 weeks ago
15 weeks ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (34)
All Comments   (34)
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Michelle Nunn MIGHT be "a solid candidate," but she has never been tested. Her popularity now is 100% name recognition and good will towards her father. That may change when she has an opponent.

There is another danger for Republicans in Georgia, though. They have had some brutal primaries, and a divided party would give Nunn the chance she needs.
15 weeks ago
15 weeks ago Link To Comment
It infuriates me that the primaries begin in the Bible belt. Not all Republicans believe that way nor do many support the ideas of that Santorem. It makes the GOP look like illiterate fools who believe in creationism and. all too frequently spout off bizarre beliefs in the darndest things.
15 weeks ago
15 weeks ago Link To Comment
Frankly, I don't think the gop will ever win the white house again. Their only hope is to embrace the Tea Party & conservatives. For yrs. the gop has been the democratic party light & is happy to support o just so they get their pork. Boenhner & Cantor might as well change parties for all the good they do. And why does weepy Jim try to block any investigation to o unless he gets steamrolled. A great ally of o is he. Forget the gop. 99% of 'em are totally worthless.
15 weeks ago
15 weeks ago Link To Comment
Funny how we never hear about the about two establishment retreads who offered voters no compelling reason for why they were even on the ballot for a US Senate Seat in in 2010- John Raese, West Virginia's answer to Harold Stassen, and Dino Rossi in Washington State.
15 weeks ago
15 weeks ago Link To Comment
Three. Thad Cochran of Mississippi is a permanent resident of DC who has been completely useless at opposing creeping Democrat statism in the Senate.
15 weeks ago
15 weeks ago Link To Comment
15 weeks ago
15 weeks ago Link To Comment
It bothers me a bit when supporters of the mainstream Republicans blame Tea Party Republicans for not winning the Senate.

In 2010 in Nevada, the mainstream Republicans picked their candidate. She lost to Sharon Angle in the primaries. Sharon allowed the very beatable Harry Reid to hold his seat.

But was it Angle's fault? Not entirely. The mainstream darling was a woman named Sue Lowden. "Support Sue" they said. "She's electable." Then, the darling of the mainstream said something so stupid that she became a national laughingstock.

What did she say? I'm not telling you. Perhaps if you give me a chicken I'll tell you how this darling of the mainstream got Harry Reid re-elected.
15 weeks ago
15 weeks ago Link To Comment
Some idiotic young Republicans called me and asked for donations to help them go and support Ms. Angle....I had already expounded on how she was allowing Reid to be reelected.....and yet they persisted. Yes, it was Republicans like those jerks who allowed for the Reid re-election. If that is what the party is offering, they are indeed bereft I don't want your chicken,,,,keep it along to feed the hungry along with with Sharon Angle who may sink in ignominy now that she lost to Reid.
15 weeks ago
15 weeks ago Link To Comment
I think you will find it was Ms. Angle not the other woman who stated her out-moded beliefs.so eat your chicken.
15 weeks ago
15 weeks ago Link To Comment
If McConnell wins his primary, I recommend all Kentucky conservatives vote for the Dem. Better to be stabbed in the front than the back.
15 weeks ago
15 weeks ago Link To Comment
I stopped reading after the first two words "Kimberly Strassel".
15 weeks ago
15 weeks ago Link To Comment
Winning elections is not the be-all-end-all. Electing candidates who will support and implement sound principles of governance is the objective.

We do not have the time, economics, or demographics as a nation to indulge ourselves with electing "cool kids" who won't harsh our mellow with objective truth - particularly about the roles of government vs. the role of the citizen - any longer.

Either conservatives must insist upon PRINCIPLED candidates, or stand back and let the the people learn - good, hard, and QUICKLY - the folly of electing the unprincipled, so they don't forget the lesson.

Electing those who dabble in principle when convenient, only prolongs the agony.
15 weeks ago
15 weeks ago Link To Comment
Winning elections sure helps. The mighty GOP with their principled stands loses time and again. Soon their campaign contributions fade away and then it's....CURTAINS.
15 weeks ago
15 weeks ago Link To Comment
You're obviously not a serious thinker if you think winning elections isn't the only way to get and exercise political power and make policy. I'm sure that Barack and his minions absolutely love to hear talk like that from the TPers.

Fortunately, most of the actual grass roots Republicans have rejected that kind of thinking, and the extremists amateurs that the so-called tea parties have put up are getting creamed in elections already held (as in Texas) and those that will be held this month and the next several months.

Winning elections is a threshhold requirement - without that, nothing, I repeat nothing matters a whit. Once your side wins, then we can all argue about the details of policy and tactics.
15 weeks ago
15 weeks ago Link To Comment
You can be 'winning' all the elections you want honey and if I pick the candidates you choose from then you won't be the real winner.

Think seriously harder next time.
15 weeks ago
15 weeks ago Link To Comment
Political power is not always wielded through government. If you believe it is, then you are a statist, not a conservative.
15 weeks ago
15 weeks ago Link To Comment
Well, McGehee, you are wrong. Our government is of the people, by the people, and for the people, as Mr. Lincoln said. The government is a reflection of what the people are, not what you or I wish us to be. Our constitution set up the structure and mechanisms of our government, including the electoral process, and in order for government to be instituted, it must be elected, not "wished" into office. Our rights may come from God, but only the Government and its institutions (legal, military, etc.) serve to defend those rights from all others, both foreign and domestic, who would deny us those rights.

Conservativism isn't extreme libertarianism, or anarchism, as you seem to believe it is with your binary "you agree with me or you're a statist" formulation.
15 weeks ago
15 weeks ago Link To Comment
In at least three of the cases you listed the GOP nominee would have won if the establishment GOP had held their noses and voted for the GOP nominee. Instead anywhere from 12 - 20% of registered GOP voters voted for the Dim. Yet you same establishment types have the unmitigated gall to tell conservatives they need to hold their noses and vote for the GOP nominee if (s)he is an establishment type.
15 weeks ago
15 weeks ago Link To Comment
Most real grass roots voters vote for people they like or trust, or at least, are not completely revolted by. Put up a revolting candidate, call him or her a Tea Party Republican, and a lot of voters will abstain.

I've never voted for a Democrat in my entire life, but I have abstained from voting for the Republican on occasion when they were particularly revolting. I would never vote for Christine O'Donnell (nutcase), Akin (complete dunderhead), or Richard Mourdock (are you kidding?). If I got drunk enough, I might be able to convince myself to vote for a Sharon Angle, but only because that was the only way to vote against Harry Reid in 2010. And I'm about as devoted a Republican as I've ever known.

So what do you think goes through the minds of the 80% of Americans who don't even pay that much attention to politics when faced with abject losers like Akin/Angle/O'Donnel/Mourdock?

Nope - politics is too serious to leave it up to the nutcases, dunderheads, dolts, and others that the Tea Party has tried unsuccessfully to pass off as "principled" candidates. The real and competent conservatives in the Party, including great guys like Tom Cotton, would never try to get by alone on principles, or the endorsement of the so-called Tea Party. Guys like him will run, win, and serve on the basis of being the best available conservative Republican .. period.
15 weeks ago
15 weeks ago Link To Comment
Sorry, but waging war on your own base is what's killing the GOP.
15 weeks ago
15 weeks ago Link To Comment
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