On the eve of next week’s Senate primaries, Republicans are in good shape to break the Todd Akin curse after being plagued in 2010 and 2012 by far-right nominees who collapsed in the general election.
That’s in large part because the GOP establishment has mounted an aggressive push to defeat the sorts of fringe tea party candidates (and the groups behind them) who have cost them winnable Senate seats — perhaps even the majority.
In addition, Democrats have sought to meddle in the primaries and undermine the GOP’s stronger general-election candidates, with less success this cycle.
In North Carolina, Sen. Kay Hagan (D) has been relentlessly attacking Thom Tillis, the speaker of the state House, for months in an apparent effort to tar him ahead of the primary. Recently she ran an ad insinuating (based on an edited partial quote) that he supports Obamacare, possibly trying to steer conservative voters away from him. But it isn’t working: a Democratic poll this week found Tillis a whopping 26 points ahead of his GOP opponents — and 6 points ahead of the threshold required to avoid a runoff in the May 6 primary.
For Georgia’s open seat, Democrats have had high hopes that Republicans would nominate Rep. Paul Broun or Rep. Phil Gingrey, both of whom have a history of embarrassing gaffes. But the two are showing signs of collapse in the crowded GOP primary while businessman David Perdue and Rep. Jack Kingston — both establishment-friendly candidates — are trending upward and appear headed for a runoff, according to survey averages by HuffPost Pollster.
Meanwhile, in Arkansas the GOP establishment’s preferred candidate, Rep. Tom Cotton (R), has cleared the field to challenge Sen. Mark Pryor (D). And Louisiana Rep. Bill Cassidy (R) is far ahead of his GOP opponents in the race to take on Sen. Mary Landrieu (D).
In Texas, which held its Republican primary in March, tea party Rep. Steve Stockman’s (R) upstart challenge to Sen. John Cornyn was a complete disaster; he lost by 40 points. And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) doesn’t appear to be in danger from tea party opponent Matt Bevin.
A wild card is Oregon, where first-term Sen. Jeff Merkley (D) is relatively safe but taking no chances. Although there’s no clear leader in the Republican primary, Democrats prefer to run against state Rep. Jason Conger over Monica Wehby, whom the GOP establishment prefers and who’s well-positioned to bring in lots of outside money. So Merkley’s Democratic allies have been focusing their attacks on Wehby.
In the last two cycles, GOP voters have nominated far-right candidates like Missouri’s Akin, Indiana’s Richard Mourdock, Nevada’s Sharron Angle and Colorado’s Ken Buck — all of whom lost, while polls suggested better GOP candidates could have won. Democrats did their part to meddle then, too. In 2010, Sen. Harry Reid (NV) aggressively exploited Sue Lowden’s gaffes to damage her credibility. In 2012 Sen. Claire McCaskill (MO) deviously boosted Akin in the GOP primary by labeling him “too conservative” in an ad.
But simply nominating their preferred candidates doesn’t necessarily mean Republicans will win the six seats they need to take the majority. It’s true that the fundamentals strongly favor the GOP, but Democratic incumbents — including in critical red states — are polling competitively against their Republican adversaries and are well-positioned to fight for their seats. This time, though, the GOP is determined not to make it easy for them.