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Tea Party challengers keep Republican establishment on edge

U.S. Senate Republican Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and his wife Elaine Chao greet a crowd of campaign supporters after defeating Tea Party challenger Matt Bevin in the state Republican primary elections in Louisville, Kentucky, May 20, 2014.


The Republican Party's path to a majority in the Senate in November's midterm elections wasn't supposed to go through Kentucky. It does now.

Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, needed to an overwhelming victory in Tuesday's primary to show he could unite Kentucky's restive Tea Party supporters under the Republican banner and scare off out-of-state Democratic donors.

He beat Matt Bevin, a Louisville businessman backed by various Tea Party groups, with 60 per cent of the vote. The result was decisive, another victory in the Republican establishment's campaign this year to block Tea Party groups from taking over nomination contests that result in unelectable candidates.

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The establishment of party elders and Washington-based lobbyists also got the candidates it wanted in Georgia and Oregon, solidifying its control and boosting the odds that the Republicans will pick up the seats they need to retake control of the Senate in November.

Yet questions will linger about Mr. McConnell's ability to deliver Republican votes after 29 years in office. He spent more than $11-million (U.S.) to beat an opponent who never before had run for office. It's reasonable to wonder whether all that money and the power of incumbency didn't bring an even wider margin of victory.

Other establishment figures had an easier time. The Republican candidate who will challenge Democratic incumbent Mark Pryor in a winnable race for Senate in Arkansas won his party's nomination unopposed Tuesday. House Speaker John Boehner earlier this month won his Ohio primary with 69 per cent of the vote.

Mr. McConnell's opponent in the midterms, Alison Lundergan Grimes, a 35-year-old state official, was the choice of 76 per cent of Democratic voters, suggesting her election machine is primed for the difficult task of flipping a state that voted for Bill Clinton but has little affection for the current president, Barack Obama. Recent polls put Ms. Grimes and Mr. McConnell in a statistical tie.

Six states held primaries Tuesday, narrowing the field of candidates seeking federal and state offices. While there were dozens of races, none mattered more than those few that will decide whether Republicans take control of the Senate in Washington. Republicans have a comfortable margin in the House of Representatives and with Mr. Obama's approval rating around 40 per cent, there is little reason to think Mr. Boehner will lose his majority.

Republicans need a net gain of six seats to win the majority in the Senate in November and the Democratic Party will be defending seven seats in states won by Mr. Obama's opponent, Mitt Romney, in 2012. Most election forecasters give the Republicans better than even odds of pulling it off.

Those projections assume Republicans hold the seats they currently have. The results in Kentucky suggest Mr. McConnell, at a minimum, has a race on his hands. That will force him and the party to commit time and money to playing defence. The prospect of a candidate capable of taking down one of Washington's most powerful Republicans already has helped Ms. Grimes raise more than $8-million (U.S.). Her show of strength Tuesday should help her attract even more.

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Another wildcard for the Republicans is Georgia, a Republican state with a growing population of blacks, Hispanics and Asians that favour Democratic policies.

Georgia election rules require a winning candidate to secure more than 50 per cent support. That didn't happen Tuesday, as seven hopefuls splintered the vote. But the goal of mainstream groups such as U.S. Chamber of Commerce was to keep the more strident office seekers off the ballot in the runoff election on July 22. They were successful.

The runoff will feature former corporate executive David Perdue – 30.6 per of the vote – and Representative Jack Kingston, who finished second with 25.8 per cent of votes cast.

Mr. Purdue, a multi-millionaire who once ran the Dollar General variety-store chain, competed as an outsider, spending about $3-million of his own money. Mr. Kingston, who was backed by the Chamber of Commerce, raised $5.6-million through the end of April.

Both are considered reliable candidates, although both emphasized their conservative credentials to stay ahead of the pack.

Accounts of the campaign describe a bitter contest in which Tea Party candidates, including Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel, who was endorsed by Sarah Palin, forced the debate away from the political mainstream. Mr. Purdue, for example, now is on record as climate-change skeptic and an opponent of a higher minimum wage.

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Those kinds of positions won't hurt Mr. Purdue and Mr. Kingston with Republican voters, but they could inhibit their ability to connect with Independents and moderates.

Michelle Nunn, who won the Democratic primary Tuesday, is counting on it. She's kept a low profile, relying on the state's love of her father, former senator Sam Nunn, to help compile a war chest of almost $7-million. She's spent less than half of it, while her Republican opponents have relatively little money left after the bruising initial phase of their primary.

Georgia is one of a handful of southern states in which Democratic strategists think they can make Republicans sweat. Ethnic populations in Atlanta and its surrounding suburbs offer hope of offsetting the white majority that disapproves of Mr. Obama.

Democratic wins in Kentucky and Georgia are longshots. Larry Sabato, an election forecaster at the University of Virginia, says Kentucky "likely" will go Republican and Georgia "leans" that way. The opposition party traditionally historically has the advantage in midterm elections, especially when the president's approval ratings are as weak as Mr. Obama's currently are.

The favourable conditions have some Republicans thinking bigger than a narrow victory in November. In Oregon Tuesday, Republicans nominated Monica Wehby, a pediatric neurosurgeon, to challenge incumbent senator Jeff Merkley.

Few consider Oregon a swing state, but Republican strategists think Dr. Wehby, a moderate who is pro-abortion, could benefit from the state's dissatisfaction with Mr. Obama's health reforms. Dr. Wehby easily defeated a Tea Party challenger, winning more than 50 per cent of the votes cast in the primary.

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About the Author
Senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation

Kevin Carmichael is a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, based in Mumbai.Previously, he was Report on Business's correspondent in Washington. He has covered finance and economics for a decade, mostly as a reporter with Bloomberg News in Ottawa and Washington. A native of New Brunswick's Upper St. More


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