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.

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.