In North Carolina and Alaska, Democratic-aligned groups aren't waiting for GOP primaries to be finished before targeting Republican candidates over the airwaves.
Patriot Majority USA on Wednesday launched a new ad to run statewide in North Carolina, characterizing Republican state House Speaker Thom Tillis as "with the special interests, hurting North Carolina families." Tillis is one of a number of Republicans fighting for the GOP nomination, but he's the front-runner and clear establishment favorite. With Americans for Prosperity dumping millions into attack ads on Sen. Kay Hagan, Democrats can't afford to wait until after the primary to try to define her likely opponent.
And in Alaska, a super PAC supporting Democratic Sen. Mark Begich went up with a television ad painting Republican Dan Sullivan as a resident of a "swanky" D.C. suburb who "pocketed a Maryland tax credit for residents living there" while "voting in Alaska, claiming to be one of us." Put Alaska First PAC has previously been up on the air defending Begich, but this ad buy — just under $50,000 — is the first time they've gone after a Republican. Sullivan is engaged in a primary with Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell and 2010 nominee Joe Miller. But, like Tillis in North Carolina, Sullivan far outraised his Republican competitors, and he is considered the front-runner. And the vulnerable Begich is under attack from outside groups as well, including a super PAC supporting Sullivan.
Ads like these, launched while primaries are still in progress, can serve another purpose aside from defining their targets ahead of a general election fight: They could potentially work to throw the primary nomination to a weaker general-election candidate altogether.
Democrats have successfully meddled in GOP Senate primaries to this effect in the past. In 2012, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., launched ads targeting each of the three Republicans vying to challenge her campaign identified then — but her campaign had identified Rep. Todd Akin as her weakest potential opponent in the field, and the ad focused actually aimed to boost him. He went on to win the primary, but he was defeated in the general after saying that women could stop themselves from getting pregnant in cases of "legitimate rape." And in 2010, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid went on the attack against GOP primary front-runner Sue Lowden, helping Sharron Angle defeat her.
There are other states beyond North Carolina and Alaska where Democrats could attempt to wreak havoc in crowded GOP primaries. Most notably, in Georgia, Democrats think GOP Reps. Paul Broun and Phil Gingrey would be the weakest general-election candidates — so don't be surprised if a Democratic group maneuvers to try to make one of them the nominee, especially if either advances to a one-on-one runoff.