May Southern Primaries Set Up GOP for Fall Battles

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.