WASHINGTON - A half-dozen Senate primary races are heightening the clash between establishment Republicans and right-wing challengers from the conservative tea party movement, threatening to exacerbate divisions in the party and undermine its goal of winning control of the upper chamber.
Republicans hope November's congressional elections will result in a long sought goal: wresting control of the Senate from the Democrats, who enjoy a 55-45 advantage. Despite favourable odds, Republican ambitions were undone in 2012 and 2010 as conservative candidates championed by the small government tea party fell one by one to Democratic opponents who won more mainstream support.
This year, Republican party leaders want to avoid a repeat of that losing scenario. Strategists say several sitting Republican senators are not content with merely trying to clobber primary candidates challenging them from the right. They also want to attack the source of their funding, the tea party-affiliated companies helping fund and shape the challengers' campaigns in primaries that will decide the party's candidates in the November elections.
Republican divisions, however, could spoil any strategy cooked up by party leaders to win the Senate, with its tea party-aligned faction having set an agenda that sent party approval ratings sinking. Conservative ideologues insist on drastic measures to shrink government, curb spending and slash taxes, with proposals at odds with what the majority of American voters prefer. But the tea party movement's strong rhetoric plays well in congressional districts dominated by conservatives.
Last October, tea party-backed members of Congress pushed reluctant leaders of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives into a politically disastrous showdown with Democrats, triggering a government shutdown. They also threatened to force the U.S. into default on its debt, a gambit meant to cripple President Barack Obama's health care overhaul and force further belt-tightening on already-strapped Americans. Democrats remained unified and refused to budge, and the effort failed under a wave of public disgust, as Republican approval ratings plummeted.
Mainstream Republican leaders struck back this month. They bucked tea party demands to again use as leverage the once obscure power of Congress to approve increases in the federal debt limit, needed so the government can pay its bills. The establishment instead heeded the advice of its business allies who said the party had to stop playing with fire by using the nation's credit as a political weapon. Instead, party leaders want to keep voters focused on what they see as the Democrats' biggest weakness: Obama's health care overhaul and its bungled rollout.
Now, the Republican Party's campaign committees for House and Senate races are aggressively defending incumbents, ending a tradition of being mostly hands-off in primaries. They instructed Republicans nationwide to refuse to hire campaign companies that worked for outside groups favouring tea party-aligned candidates.
The intra-party battles are hottest in Kentucky, Kansas and Mississippi, where Republican senators in their 70s face younger tea party-backed challengers. In all three states, the sitting senators or their allies are striking hard at unproven challengers who might have drawn gentler treatment in the past.
In Kentucky, the tea party-backed challenger to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is trying to explain old investor letters that recently surfaced, undermining his criticisms of government bailouts of banks. In Kansas, the physician trying to oust three-term Sen. Pat Roberts is apologizing for posting graphic images of gunshot victims on his Facebook page some years ago.
Sen. Mike Lee, a tea party Republican, launched this brand of party infighting when he stunned three-term Sen. Bob Bennett in Utah's party nominating process in 2010. While Lee succeeded in the general election in the overwhelmingly Republican state, other ultraconservative Republicans did not fare so well in that election cycle and again in 2012, when a tea party challenger ousted veteran Sen. Richard Lugar in the Indiana primary, only to lose to an underdog Democrat in the general election.
Ever since, establishment Republicans have accused insurgent activists like former Republican Sen. Jim DeMint, who founded the Senate Conservatives Fund, of knocking out more moderate Republican candidates in primaries who would have been tougher opponents of Democrats in general elections, when more mainstream voters turn out.
Some tea partiers, in return, say longtime Republican leaders like McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner betray conservative principles by working with Democrats on matters such as the debt ceiling.
The establishment's aggressive strategy carries risks. If conservative voters who dominate the primary process feel insulted by incumbent Republicans' actions, it could hurt efforts to galvanize the party's grassroots against Democrats.
Charlie Black, an adviser to top national Republicans for years, said veteran Republican senators such as McConnell can find the right balance. Exposing the machinations of Washington-based conservative organizations, he said, should not alienate Republican voters who oppose Obama and other Democrats.
However, Republican pollster and consultant Mike McKenna says incumbents such as McConnell are playing a dangerous game. Many tea party-leaning voters will be loyal Republicans, he said, if they feel the party establishment respects their concerns.
No matter what Republicans leaders such as McConnell and Boehner do, they already face calls for their ouster by conservative groups like the Senate Conservatives Fund and FreedomWorks, who favour candidates they see as more ideologically pure and less likely to reach deals with Democrats.
Summarizing the conflict is a banner in FreedomWorks' Washington headquarters quoting the group's president, Matt Kibbe, that says: "Sometimes you have to beat the Republicans before you beat the Democrats."
Associated Press writer Charles Babington contributed to this report. Follow him on Twitter: https://twitter.com/cbabington.
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