WASHINGTON: Twice burned, Republicans are treading carefully around tea party groups as they pursue a Senate majority that slipped through their fingers in 2010 and 2012.
“You’d have to be an idiot not to prepare” for primary election challenges from the right, no matter the state, says Rob Jesmer, who was executive director of the GOP Senate campaign committee when flawed, conservative candidates captured primaries, only to lose winnable races in the fall.
While incumbents work to ward off or repel challenges from within their party, a Republican tempest already is flaring in Georgia, where GOP Sen. Saxby Chambliss is stepping down. Party officials also look apprehensively toward Iowa, where Sen. Tom Harkin’s decision to retire opens up a seat long in Democratic hands.
The developments come at a time when the Republican Party nationally is involved in a well-chronicled period of introspection after failing to win the White House last fall. President Barack Obama’s support reached 53 percent among women who cast ballots, 60 percent among voters under 30, some 71 percent among Hispanics and 93 percent among blacks. Numerous officials have said the party must find a way to broaden its appeal rather than continue to steer rightward.
Brad Dayspring, a spokesman for Republicans, said consternation about a replay of recent politically damaging primaries “at least for the moment, doesn’t seem to be an issue” for the GOP.
Yet the divisions that pit the party establishment against insurgents and self-styled grass-roots groups show no signs of abating.
Incumbent Republicans seem eager to avoid antagonizing groups that have helped elect tea party favorites such as Sens. Mike Lee in Utah, Rand Paul in Kentucky, Marco Rubio in Florida and Ted Cruz in Texas in recent years.
Even before the beginning of the year, the party’s Senate leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, hired the campaign manager who guided Paul to his establishment-upending victory in 2010.
The party’s second-ranking leader, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, was one of only three Senate Republicans to oppose John Kerry’s confirmation as secretary of state. He has said he expects a primary challenge and Democrats recently accused him of being on “Cruz control,” as he seeks a new term.
Megan Mitchell, a spokeswoman for Cornyn, disputed the claim while stressing the second-term lawmaker “is proud to have Ted Cruz in the Senate.”
Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a veteran senator with an independent streak, has been at the forefront of efforts to derail several of Obama’s high-level nominees. He is preparing to face voters in a state where the tea party has notched numerous triumphs.
In all, Republicans must gain six seats to win a majority in the 100-member Senate in 2014, and can ill afford the sort of turmoil that led to unexpected defeats in Nevada, Colorado and Delaware in 2010 and in Missouri and Indiana last year.