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Crowded Republican Senate Primaries Pose Hazards for Party

Republicans aiming to seize control of the U.S. Senate face a challenge in their crowded field of primary candidates in some states. It’s a hazard of the party’s own making.

Two years after the Tea Party movement cast aside the party’s anointed choices in primaries in Delaware, Florida and Nevada, the Republican establishment has taken a hands-off posture in 2012. The result is a cluster of Senate races in competitive states where Republican primary victors are tough to predict.

The outcomes in those states will help determine whether Republicans win the four seats needed to take control of the Senate if President Barack Obama retains the presidency. In at least a half-dozen states, Democrats have no primary opponent while Republicans will fight it out in a “survival of the fittest” contest, said Jennifer Duffy, Senate editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

“Republicans can’t afford to have primaries produce too many candidates who don’t appeal to a broader electorate, especially in a presidential election year,” Duffy said.

States with competitive primaries include Wisconsin, Missouri, Florida and Pennsylvania. In Indiana, where the party is backing incumbent Republican Senator Richard Lugar’s bid for a seventh term, there also will be a fight for the party nomination.

Democrats face contested Senate primaries in states including New Mexico and Hawaii, and will have to overcome Obama’s mediocre approval ratings and a tough economy.

‘Viable’ Primary Candidates

Rob Jesmer, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said all of the Republicans running in key contested primaries are “viable” and none have the problems associated with Christine O’Donnell and Sharron Angle -- unseasoned Tea Party-backed candidates whose 2010 primary wins sealed Democratic gains in Delaware and Nevada.

“I have yet to find a race where if a certain candidate wins, we can’t win,” Jesmer said.

Independent analysts including Duffy are giving Republicans an edge in the Senate. Democrats now hold 23 of the 33 seats on the ballot this year and seven of their incumbents have announced their retirement. Barring a dramatic economic turnaround, Democrats won’t be able to rely on Obama for the boost he provided in the 2008 election, when Democrats expanded their House and Senate majorities.

Patty Murray of Washington, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said the contested Republican primaries increase her party’s chances of keeping control of the chamber.

Conservative Credentials

“In a lot of the states we are seeing Republican primaries that are focused on Republican contenders confirming their own conservative credentials,” she said. “They won’t be viable if they get past their state primary.”

Many of the intra-party Republican battles center on issues of how far to curb government regulations on the environment and financial services, and whether lawmakers should approve home-district projects, known as earmarks.

Democrats are scoping out opportunities as Republicans emphasize early positions on the right. In Michigan, where Republicans are eyeing the seat of Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow, former Representative Pete Hoekstra is taking heat from conservatives for his past support of the financial bailout and is highlighting his call for repeal of the Dodd-Frank financial regulatory overhaul. Democrats plan to use that issue against him if he wins a primary against at least five other challengers.

Tea Party Express

Conservative groups including the Tea Party Express, created during the 2010 election cycle, and the long-standing small-government group Club for Growth are starting to weigh in with endorsements of conservative primary contenders.

“We can marshal some advertising, but more importantly we’ll get people focused and engaged,” said Sal Russo, chief strategist of the Tea Party Express. His group has backed conservative Republican Senate candidates vying for an open seat in Nebraska and in Indiana, where Lugar is challenged from the right by the state’s treasurer. Eight other endorsements that he declined to disclose will come soon.

Such outside support is a factor in the Wisconsin Republican primary, where candidates to replace retiring Democratic Senator Herb Kohl include former Governor Tommy Thompson, former U.S. Representative Mark Neumann and state House Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald. Neumann has backing from the Club for Growth and the leadership PAC run by Senator Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican who helped propel Tea Party candidates in 2010.

Name Recognition

U.S. Representative Tammy Baldwin is unchallenged for the Democratic Senate nomination in Wisconsin. Thompson hasn’t been on a ballot since 1998, though he has statewide name recognition, a centrist record and would probably appeal best in a general election, said Charles Franklin, visiting professor of law and public policy at Marquette University Law School in Milwaukee. Neumann would have a tougher challenge than Thompson, he said, and so might Fitzgerald, whose agenda is tied to that of Governor Scott Walker, who faces a possible recall election this year.

Either “would make it a competitive race, and who knows what the outcome would be under those circumstances,” Franklin said.

In Missouri, the party has no clear favorite to run against incumbent Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill, who won her first term with 49.6 percent of the vote.

‘Terrible Fundraiser’

Former Missouri state Treasurer Sarah Steelman is the only Republican candidate who has run statewide before. Duffy said she has proven to be a “terrible fundraiser,” trailing U.S. Representative Todd Akin. He raised $1.2 million through the end of the third quarter, while Steelman brought in $666,608 and loaned her campaign another $400,000.

Akin, from a Republican-dominated district near St. Louis, has a 100 percent voting rating from the American Conservative Union and may not appeal as strongly as Steelman to swing voters, Duffy said. A third Republican candidate, businessman John Brunner, may emerge as a “dark horse,” she said.

In Florida, Representative Connie Mack is a late entry into the race for the Republican nomination to take on Democratic Senator Bill Nelson. Among the other half-dozen candidates are former Republican Senator George LeMieux and former state House Majority Leader Adam Hasner.

Expensive State

Analysts say Mack would be the strongest general election candidate because he can draw on statewide name recognition in part because his father, Connie Mack III, served in the U.S. Senate. He entered relatively late, on Nov. 28, and must catch up in an expensive state for campaigns, said Nathan Gonzales, political editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report.

LeMieux is running aggressive attacks over issues that include Mack’s past support of spending projects for his district.

A Jan. 4-8 Quinnipiac University poll out Jan. 11 found that a race between Mack and Nelson would be a dead heat, with 41 percent of 1,400 registered voters surveyed saying they would vote for Nelson and 40 percent for Mack.

For the Republicans, winning the seat may hinge on whether Mack emerges, said Hastings Wyman, founder of the nonpartisan Southern Political Report. “He’s the only one at this point who is competitive with Nelson,” he said.

In Indiana, Lugar is coming under fire from Republican challenger Richard Mourdock for support of the 2008 financial bailout, legislation allowing a pathway to citizenship for some children of illegal immigrants, and both of Obama’s Supreme Court nominees.

Dozens of Endorsements

Mourdock, the Indiana state treasurer, has Tea Party support and endorsements from dozens of Republican Party county chairmen. Still, his fundraising lags well behind Lugar: By the end of September, he raised $904,084 to Lugar’s $4.17 million. Brian Howey, editor and publisher of Howey Politics Indiana, said in a general election Lugar would likely beat Democrat Joe Donnelly, who is running unopposed for his party’s nomination. Mourdock’s more conservative profile would mean a tougher fight.

“If Mourdock were to win, we would be looking at a seat that would be very competitive,” Howey said.

In Pennsylvania the crop of Republican candidates is so vast and dotted with first-time candidates that Democratic Senator Bob Casey is viewed as likely to win re-election. That’s two years after Republicans seized the other Senate seat from a Democrat in the centrist state. Candidates in a field of almost a dozen include businessman Steve Welch, Scranton Tea Party director Laureen Cummings and Marc Scaringi, a one-time aide to former Senator Rick Santorum.

“There are people who can give a good race, but there’s no standout to me,” Duffy said.

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