SPOTLIGHT

A Whole Different Ballgame

Unlike House and governors’ races, GOP Senate leaders aggressively work to weed out fringe candidates.

Republican candidate for governor of Virginia, Corey Stewart, speaks at a campaign kickoff rally in a restaurant in Occoquan, Va.
AP Photo/Steve Helber
Andrea Drusch
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Andrea Drusch
June 16, 2017, 11:08 a.m.

If Trump acolyte Corey Stewart (R) jumps into the race to challenge Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine (D), as Stewart suggested was a possibility this week, he’ll face a much more organized intraparty opposition than he did in his surprisingly close gubernatorial bid.

GOP outside groups have struggled with how to handle fringe candidates like Stewart in House races, governor’s contests and even the presidential election in recent years. But in the Senate, well-funded groups aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) have plenty of practice stamping out candidates they see as a threat to their caucus.

After losing a handful of races on the backs of flawed candidates in 2010, these groups have taken an aggressive approach to defending incumbents, as well as getting their preferred candidates through primaries in open races. While several incumbents faced close calls from primary challenges in 2014, 2016’s GOP incumbents all took more than 50 percent in their primaries, thanks to aggressive campaigns to dust up their challengers.

In the most recent flexing of political muscle, the McConnell’s Senate Leadership Fund vowed up to $10 million to protect an ally in new Alabama Sen. Luther Strange this summer, even though leaders concede any Republican in the race could hold the seat. The Senate’s GOP establishment also wields considerable influence over campaign staff, often blacklisting consulting firms that do business with candidates they don’t like.

Stewart’s bombastic style, underscored by his refusal to endorse primary opponent Ed Gillespie (R) after losing the governor’s primary this week, is almost certain to put him at odds with McConnell world, which is eagerly eyeing other candidates for this competitive swing state.

—Andrea Drusch

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