It’s friendly fire time at the GOP corral.
For anyone who thought the Republican establishment/tea party battles were over, think again. If 2010 was a headache for the National Republican Senatorial Committee in helping its favored recruits while placating tea party activists, 2012 could be an outright migraine: Hard-hitting primaries targeting top prospects and incumbents could be the norm.
Of the 10 GOP senators up for reelection in 2012, six of them face the likelihood of a credible primary challenge—and we’re barely out of the midterms.
The primaries could crimp GOP hopes of taking control of the Senate. Senate Republican strategists privately blame untested tea party nominees for losses in Delaware, Colorado, and Nevada—and are wary of repeats in for-now safe seats in Maine and Indiana.
The tea party primary successes have forced GOP strategists to rethink whether the strongest candidates are the most experienced, such as former Sens. Jim Talent of Missouri and George Allen of Virginia and Rep. Denny Rehberg of Montana.
The knives are out: Even though he is a Heritage Foundation fellow, the Club for Growth has tagged Talent as a supporter of “government expansion.” And Allen is being slammed by potential rival Corey Stewart as part of “the do-nothing Republicans who tarnished the Republican brand and were punished by voters in 2006 and 2008.” Allen loyalists went macaca over the audacity of the attack.
In the anti-establishment environment, Washington experience is hazardous to political health, puts longtime GOP officeholders on high alert, and gives heartburn to 2012 strategists. If Allen and Talent fail conservative litmus tests, almost any veteran is at risk.
Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., is the poster child for Republicans putting their political health at risk. The six-termer is all but daring conservatives to challenge him, refusing to sign onto an earmark ban and being outspoken in supporting the New START nuclear weapons treaty. He’s his party’s leading maverick when his political survival is most threatened, and has already drawn interested challengers, even though he faced no Republican or Democratic opponent in 2006.
Two Republican officeholders are interested in running against Lugar. One of them, state Treasurer Richard Mourdock, received the most statewide votes of any Indiana candidate this year. The other, state Sen. Mike Delph, writes on his legislative site he is “increasingly concerned with” Lugar’s actions.
If Lugar loses a primary, Republicans would have to concentrate on an otherwise safe seat, as Democrats would likely find a credible candidate, unlike 2006. Indiana is friendly to Republicans, but they would still have to spend resources to defend the seat.
In Maine, Sen. Olympia Snowe is different. If she loses the nomination, Democrats would be favored. She’s forged a moderate path in a Democratic state with longstanding success, but has never faced a serious challenge from her right. That could change as tea party groups make noise, particularly in the wake of getting their favored gubernatorial choice, Paul LePage, elected in November.
The state’s closed primary system only allows registered Republicans to choose their nominee, making Snowe potentially vulnerable. Like Rep. Michael Castle, R-Del., who lost to an insurgent in a closed primary, Snowe is widely popular but less so among dedicated primary voters.
Snowe is highlighting her conservative credentials, voting for the earmark ban, emphasizing her fiscal stinginess and trumpeting her alliance with LePage. None ring particularly authentic.
While Snowe and Lugar are the most vulnerable GOP senators, four of their colleagues should watch their backs.
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas hasn’t fully recovered from a gubernatorial campaign where she was tarred as a consummate Hill insider, and several statewide officials have declared their interest in challenging her.
And Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah fears the same conservative activists who ousted Sen. Robert Bennett at a party convention could do the same to him, especially given his past support for immigration reform. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who ousted Rep. Chris Cannon in the 2008 primary largely because of immigration, poses a serious threat to Hatch.
Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee is getting flak over his support for the Troubled Asset Relief Program. He’s in good shape, but a flattering Fortune magazine profile labeling him as “Washington’s dealmaker” won’t help dissuade any tea party challengers.
And Sen. John Ensign of Nevada doesn’t face an ideological battle, just the prospect of a nasty primary spotlighting his ethical vulnerabilities. Rep. Dean Heller could exploit those weaknesses, and GOP insiders say he won’t be dissuaded if Ensign runs.
Republicans still look to have a fruitful 2012—it’s always been part of their two-cycle plan to take back the Senate. Democrats are defending 23 seats, many in GOP territory. Republicans only have to defend 10.
And both the establishment and tea partiers are making nice, to a degree. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., an insurgent kingmaker this year, has privately reassured his colleagues that nearly all of his resources will go to defeating Democrats, not promoting intraparty squabbles.
The NRSC, with much of its senior staff still in place, is showing signs of adapting to the new reality. NRSC Chairman John Cornyn of Texas told National Review that incumbents need to be prepared for a primary—without assistance from the NRSC.
He also reached out to mavericky Sarah Steelman last month, urging her to run against Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., despite Talent’s interest; she later announced her candidacy. Two years ago, Cornyn tried to push Steelman away from challenging Rep. Roy Blunt for the state’s open Senate seat, and she trashed the establishment before stepping aside.
But that doesn’t change the fact that opportunities are there for turmoil—all it takes are a few credible candidates or a Christine O’Donnell to pour fuel on a smoldering fire.
This article appears in the December 8, 2010, edition of NJ Daily.