Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson, who once appeared to have a lock on the GOP Senate nomination, might not be the only Republican from the Bluegrass State whose fortunes take a hit next Tuesday.
If, as polls suggest, Grayson loses the Senate primary to insurgent Rand Paul, some GOP insiders say Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., could find a new bull's-eye on his back.
Nowhere are the GOP's internal tensions more raw than in Kentucky.
Senate Republicans are, of course, enthusiastic these days, brimming with justifiable confidence about big gains in November. But if they fall short of a clear majority, a growing chorus of party activists could lay blame on a Senate leader whose strategy relied heavily on recruiting establishment candidates for key races. McConnell's job security could depend largely on how much of a drubbing the GOP establishment takes this fall.
Perhaps the biggest wild card in this scenario: Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., who has dismissed talk that he may challenge McConnell in 2011, but told the Associated Press this week that he's "not going to sit on the sidelines again." DeMint has endorsed a series of Tea Party-backed candidates this year who, if they prevail, could provide him with a small but influential bloc of Senate loyalists in the 112th Congress.
Nowhere are the party's internal tensions more raw than in Kentucky, where McConnell and other Senate Republicans backed Grayson last year after (or was it before?) they unceremoniously muscled Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., out of his re-election bid.
Armed with DeMint's endorsement, Paul has stepped up his public assaults on McConnell. This week, for example, he declined to commit his support to McConnell should he be elected. "We'd have to know who the opponent was, and we'd discuss it at that time," Paul said Monday during a televised debate. Turning his sights on Grayson, he added, "Kentucky wants two U.S. senators, not one. I don't think we want a rubber stamp of one 'R' senator for the other 'R' senator."
Paul's problem, of course, is that he remains a bigger gamble for Republicans in November; recent polls show he would face a tougher race this fall than Grayson. Republicans face even bigger problems in Florida, where Gov. Charlie Crist's decision to bolt the GOP could siphon votes from former state House Speaker Marco Rubio (R), who won DeMint's support last year.
Meanwhile, in Utah, Sen. Bob Bennett was booted off the GOP ballot Saturday after he trailed Mike Lee, whom DeMint has endorsed, and Tim Bridgewater in GOP convention balloting. This week, in a move that could hinder GOP efforts to hold his seat, Bennett, a close adviser to McConnell, refused to rule out running a write-in campaign this fall.
"I have made a decision not to make any decisions, or any announcements, for a while. So, we will let this thing settle," Bennett told Hill reporters Tuesday after exiting McConnell's office. "When I tell [my Republican colleagues] that I have decided not to make any decisions, they all say that's really a smart thing to do."
(It was a curious comment for Bennett. Considering how much criticism he has received in Utah for "going Washington," was he well advised to suggest that he's relying on Senate colleagues to map out his next political move?)
Democrats, of course, are dealing with their own intraparty headaches. Despite active support from the White House, for example, tracking polls show Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., locked in a tight race with his insurgent primary challenger, Rep. Joe Sestak, less than a week before the Pennsylvania primary.
But it's Republicans this year who are embroiled in a broader internal debate about what kind of party they need to become to return to the majority. And if they're not careful, that debate could become so divisive that it ultimately claims those currently in power.