Kentucky, Wyoming and South Carolina should be easy wins for incumbent Republicans trying to regain the U.S. Senate majority in 2014.
Instead, the primary challenges they face threaten to drain resources, sharpen campaign trail rhetoric and build division for a party struggling to find its way after a demoralizing 2012 election.
In Georgia, the Republican primary is jammed with seven candidates, pitting one wing of the party against the other -- as is the case in the other states. Meanwhile, Democrats are unifying behind one candidate.
The infighting has raised Democratic expectations that they can keep control of the chamber and perhaps capture seats in Republican-leaning states. They did that in Indiana and Missouri in 2012 against inexperienced candidates backed by the small-government Tea Party branch of the party.
Democrats control 54 Senate seats, compared with 46 held by their partisan adversaries. Republicans need a net gain of six seats to win the 100-member chamber, because Democratic Vice President Joe Biden also serves as president of the Senate, and Democrats are defending seven seats in states won by Republican Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election: Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota and West Virginia.
“It’s those primary challenges that shot down the Republican effort to win the Senate in the last two elections,” said David Redlawsk, a political science professor at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. “The Tea Party brought in what turned out to be very weak candidates.”
The intramural bickering is the environment that confronts Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus as he meets with state party leaders this week in Boston to discuss how best to turn around the party’s electoral course.
At the top of their agenda will be a woman who potentially represents their biggest obstacle to regaining the White House in 2016: Hillary Clinton.
Priebus has threatened to block presidential primary debate partnerships with NBC and CNN if the television networks don’t cancel planned Clinton documentaries that he calls free advertising for a potential Democratic presidential candidate.
During the four-day meeting, RNC members will also hear privately from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, and Newt Gingrich, a former House speaker and a 2012 presidential candidate.
The brewing Republican primary contests are battles that reflect divisions that have burdened the party nationally since 2010, when some incumbents facing relatively easy re-elections were challenged because they were viewed as too willing to compromise or not vocal enough in their opposition to Democrats.
In most of the states, the Republican primary winner will have a distinct advantage going into the general election, given the partisan tilt of the state. That’s not always the outcome, though. In 2012, for example, Indiana’s Senator Richard Lugar lost an intra-party fight that ultimately resulted in Democrat Joe Donnelly winning.
“If any of these challenges succeed, it suggests that the party will remain at war with itself,” Redlawsk said. “It’s also a pretty good signal for the 2016 race and the attention that the early candidates will receive.”
Jennifer Duffy, an analyst with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington, said the race in Georgia is the one that best encapsulates the issues facing Republicans.
“Georgia is really going to be telling,” she said. “Republicans have the potential of nominating a candidate who cannot win statewide.”
The Republican field to replace retiring Senator Saxby Chambliss includes three U.S. House members -- Paul Broun, Jack Kingston and Phil Gingrey.
Also running is former secretary of state Karen Handel, who resigned in 2012 as an executive at the Susan G. Komen foundation, a breast cancer charity, amid controversy over pulling funding from Planned Parenthood, which provides women’s health screenings and abortions.
Broun, trained as a physician, could face difficulties in a general election because of his comments about evolution.
“All that stuff I was taught about evolution, embryology, Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell,” he told an audience in October 2012. “It’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who are taught that from understanding that they need a savior. You see, there are a lot of scientific data that I found out as a scientist that actually show that this is really a young Earth. I don’t believe that the Earth is but about 9,000 years old. I believe that it was created in six days as we know them.”
A runoff election will be held in Georgia if none of the candidates wins more than 50 percent of the primary vote. That could drain additional Republican resources for the general election battle against Democrat Michelle Nunn, the daughter of former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn.
Earlier this year, Republican strategist Karl Rove helped form a new political action committee, the Conservative Victory Project, that plans to back candidates in primaries that it deems to be the most electable in a general election. The Georgia race is one that the group is monitoring, according to a person familiar with their strategy who wasn’t authorized to talk publicly about it.
In South Carolina, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham faces multiple primary challengers, although a favorable general election environment if he clears the early hurdles.
“He has three primary opponents, which bodes pretty well for him because it divides up any anti-Graham vote that exists and none of these other candidates is especially well known,” said Duffy.
Still, South Carolina also has a run-off rule so Graham may be vulnerable if he can’t avoid a one-on-one showdown.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, facing a Tea Party-backed Republican primary opponent, is also a top target for Democrats. His immediate challenger is Louisville businessman Matthew Bevin, a wealthy investor who has criticized the six-term incumbent as being out of touch with the party’s grassroots and voters.
Alaska also carries risk for Republicans trying to unseat Democratic Senator Mark Begich, if they fail to nominate a candidate who can win statewide.
Republican candidates so far include Lieutenant Governor Mead Treadwell and Joe Miller, a Tea Party favorite who unsuccessfully ran in 2010. Sarah Palin, the state’s former governor and the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee, has also said she’s considering the race.
In Wyoming, Republican Liz Cheney, the elder daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, is running against Senator Michael Enzi, a fellow Republican who is well-liked by both Tea Party activists and more traditional Republicans.
“I don’t consider that much of a Tea Party challenge,” Duffy said. “I consider that an impatient candidate. But it will get a lot of attention because of who Liz Cheney is.”
-- With assistance from Greg Giroux in Washington. Editors: Jeanne Cummings, Mark Silva