Monday, September 1, 2014

The Tea Party will probably lose three primaries tonight

Mitch McConnell votes in Kentucky today. Win McNamee/Getty Images News

In 2010 and 2012, many Republican Senate primaries followed one particular pattern. The establishment would anoint a preferred candidate, but then a little-known far-right challenger would manage to win the nomination instead — and flame out spectacularly in the general election. There was Sharron Angle in Nevada, Christine O'Donnell in Delaware, Ken Buck in Colorado, Richard Mourdock in Indiana, and Todd Akin in Missouri — all of them lost, and the GOP failed to retake the chamber. As the Democrats face a tough Senate map this year, they've hoped that the GOP would face similar primary troubles again.

But this doesn't appear to be happening. Today, there are three GOP Senate primaries where establishment-supported candidates are squaring off against more conservative challengers. In every one, the establishment is winning. However, each race has its own unique dynamics and twists. Here's what you need to know:

Georgia: Free-for-all, then a runoff

Opened by the retirement of Sen. Saxby Chambliss, this may be the GOP-controlled seat most at risk of flipping to the Democrats — Michelle Nunn (D), a nonprofit CEO and the daughter of a former senator, has been leading most recent polls. Today, Georgia Republicans will choose between five different candidates — businessman David Perdue, former GA Secretary of State Karen Handel, and Congressmen Jack Kingston, Phil Gingrey, and Paul Broun. No one candidate is expected to get 50 percent of the vote, so the top two finishers will likely move on to a runoff. Most of all, national Republicans hope the far-right Broun and Gingrey fail to finish in the top two — Broun has said that evolution and the Big Bang Theory are "lies straight from the pit of hell," and Gingrey defended Todd Akin's comments about "legitimate rape." But they trail in most recent polls.

Oregon: A dream candidate, or a nightmare?

Earlier this year, Senator Jeff Merkley (D) wasn't believed to be vulnerable — until national Republicans recruited someone they thought was a dream candidate. Monica Wehby is a pediatric neurosurgeon campaigning against Obamacare, but she's pro-choice and thinks individual states should decide whether to have same-sex marriage. Yet some conservatives and pro-life groups have rallied instead around state Senator Jason Conger. And some recent revelations have cast doubt on Wehby's electability — the Oregonian reported that both her ex-husband and an ex-boyfriend accused her of stalking and harassment in recent years. But since all voting in Oregon is conducted by mail, and many ballots are therefore sent in days in advance, it's not clear whether these reports will swing the race.

Kentucky: The leader hangs on

Here, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is facing a challenge from the right, from businessman Matt Bevin. Early on, McConnell was believed to be vulnerable, since he's the ultimate Washington insider and had angered conservatives by arranging certain deals with the White House. But Bevin's campaign hasn't really gained traction — he was embroiled in a controversy over his support for cockfighting, among other problems — and McConnell has a double-digit lead in most polls. He'll likely advance to the general, where a strong Democratic challenger — Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes — is waiting for him.

The Takeaway

If the polls are accurate, establishment-supported candidates will win in all of these races (and will win the two spots in Georgia's runoff). But in Oregon, the GOP might be stuck with Wehby, who insiders thought was electable, but ended up having more problems than they realized. So while Republicans look likely to avoid having far-right candidates throw away general elections, their hopes of expanding the map of competitive states to Oregon might prove fruitless.

Correction: This post originally described Todd Akin as a Tea Party candidate. In fact, Tea Party support was split in his primary, and it's more accurate to describe Akin as a far-right candidate.

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