With the 2014 Senate landscape taking hold, Republicans are having some luck breaking the tea party curse that cost them winnable seats — perhaps the majority — in the last two elections.
Senate primaries are set to begin next week. And for the most part, the sorts of radical, unelectable candidates (think Todd Akin, Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell) whom Republican voters nominated in 2010 and 2012 aren’t gaining much traction this time around.
Democrats, who are at a structural disadvantage in the November elections, are banking on bruising Republican primary battles that culminate in the nominations of extreme conservatives who repulse the general electorate. (Operatives regularly circulate stories about intra-GOP skirmishes in emails with the subject line, “GOP Tea Party Primary-Palooza Alert.”) TPM asked a well-placed Democratic strategist where they most expect GOP voters to nominate radical candidates. The answer: Georgia, North Carolina and Mississippi.
Georgia is where an Akin-esque nominee remains plausible. Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss is retiring and the establishment favorite to succeed him, Rep. Jack Kingston, is locked in a close three-way fight with Reps. Paul Broun and Phil Gingrey, both of whom have a history of making outlandish statements about evolution and the female reproductive system (among other things). Nominating Broun or Gingrey might open up a door for Democrat Michelle Nunn.
But the nomination of radical GOP candidates appears less likely in other races.
“The fact that Democrats have to hope for others to fail reveals the terrible position that Senators like Mary Landrieu, Mark Pryor, Kay Hagan, and Mark Begich are in,” said Brad Dayspring, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
In North Carolina, the GOP establishment’s preferred candidate, State House Speaker Thom Tillis, has opened up a lead in the primary despite jumping in the race after right-wing opponent Greg Brannon. While Tillis is working to balance the need to embrace party orthodoxy without appearing extreme, Brannon says he’d be a senator in the mold of ultraconservatives Sens. Rand Paul, Mike Lee and Ted Cruz. Tillis is vying to unseat Sen. Kay Hagan (D).
In Mississippi, State Sen. Chris McDaniel (R) poses a threat to incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran (R). Even though McDaniel has made some bizarre missteps, such as retweeting a neo-Nazi account and blaming gun violence on hip-hop music, Mississippi is so conservative as a state that Democrats don’t yet have a viable candidate to defeat either Republican.
In Arkansas, freshman Rep. Tom Cotton has cleared the Republican field to challenge vulnerable Sen. Mark Pryor (D). He enjoys the backing of tea party groups and the GOP establishment. While Cotton has racked up a very conservative voting record, the Harvard law graduate and Army veteran isn’t known to have foot-in-mouth syndrome.
In Louisiana, Rep. Bill Cassidy is the establishment favorite and frontrunner for the Republican nomination to take on Sen. Mary Landrieu (D). He has a leg up on conservative candidates Rob Maness, who has drawn comparisons to Ted Cruz, and Paul Hollis, who pledges to fight against “a federal government seemingly bent on destroying our rights, our economy and our values.”
Elsewhere, tea party-backed challengers to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn and Sen. Lindsey Graham remain clear underdogs in those races.
“Almost without exception senators heeded the lessons from the last two cycles and have taken nothing for granted,” said Brian Walsh, a GOP strategist who worked for the NRSC during the 2010 and 2012 elections. “When you consider the stories this week about [Milton] Wolf, or [Matt] Bevin’s past support for TARP, or the fact that McDaniel once voted as a Democrat, it’s clear these outside [tea party] groups spent very little time or money actually vetting their endorsed candidates and that information is now coming to the surface.”
Some of the shift is the result of a concerted effort by the Republican establishment to fight back against the self-destructive tendencies of its right flank. Some of it is the result of waning tea party influence on the national stage — the movement that has had a stranglehold over the GOP in the era of President Obama has seen its clout reduced to being able to block major new initiatives in Congress.
“By all rights, Republicans should currently hold a Senate majority,” political scientist Michael McDonald wrote recently. “Opportunities in key Senate races have been wasted in the last two elections by extreme Tea Party candidates who have allowed Democrats to claim victories in races the early generic ballot polling indicated were likely Republican wins.”