Republican Party senators beat midterm conservative rivals

Wins by beleaguered Republican establishment over conservative challengers in midterm primaries counters the sour view of Congress

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 August, 2014, 4:49am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 August, 2014, 10:44pm


Primary season for this year's midterm election is nearly closed, with an outcome not been seen in years: incumbent Republican senators have beaten all their conservative challengers in a series of wins for the party's beleaguered establishment.

The results, capped by wins last week by Republican senators Lamar Alexander in Tennessee and Pat Roberts in Kansas, seem to run counter to Americans' sour mood about Congress. Such victories should bode well for Republican efforts to gain the sixseats needed to win control of the Senate in November. But how much it help remains debated.

Democrats argue Republican candidates have won in large part by moving so far to the right that little distinguishes them from the "tea party" conservative political movement's challengers and may leave those in competitive races vulnerable in November.

Yet establishment conservative figures are taking nothing for granted. "We're pleased with the results, but nobody here's dancing in the end zone," said Rob Engstrom, the national political director at the US Chamber of Commerce, which was deeply involved in key Republican primary races. "I still think getting to six [seats] is going to be a challenge."

Republicans seem almost certain to pick up three seats now held by Democrats in West Virginia, South Dakota and Montana. Democratic incumbent Senator John Walsh dropped out of the Montana race last week when it was revealed he plagiarised much of a paper he wrote for his master's degree in 2007.

The Republican Party has a good chance in at least five other states: Alaska, Arkansas, Iowa, Louisiana and North Carolina. Officials also claim to be competitive in states, such as Colorado, Michigan and New Hampshire.

Republicans have learned their lessons over the last two midterm election cycles, when candidates such as Sharron Angle in Nevada and Christine O'Donnell in Delaware - seen to hold not widely supported views - were blamed for dashing the party's chances for gaining control of the Senate.

The Chamber of Commerce and other business-oriented groups started work on the primaries early to help favoured candidates beat challengers.

In all, 10 Republican Senate primaries went in favour of the establishment's choice, including races in Kentucky, where Senator Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, swatted back a challenge, and South Carolina, where Senator Lindsey Graham, once considered endangered for his work on immigration reform, sailed to his party's nomination.

Yet the party's populist right and tea party forces have found a measure of victory even in defeat, as their influence has shaped candidates and their campaigns.

Barney Keller, a spokesman for the Club for Growth, which has backed challengers against several incumbent Republicans in recent years, said it had not been involved in the Kansas race, where the incumbent, Roberts, had shifted his positions and had been given an improved rating.

"There's a ripple effect to everything we do," Keller said.

Democrats believe such shifts will help them portray Republican candidates in competitive states as being out of step - particularly on personal finance issues, such as raising the minimum wage, which conservative groups such as Keller's oppose.

"The establishment got the candidates they wanted, but they're still not good candidates," said Justin Barasky, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "[Moving to the right was] a great strategy for winning Republican primaries, and a terrible strategy for winning in November," he said.