WASHINGTON, D.C. — Tuesday’s high-profile primary elections may extend a streak of sorts for tea party Republicans: losing individual races but winning the larger ideological war by tugging the GOP rightward.
Several tea party-endorsed candidates are struggling in Tuesday’s Republican congressional primaries in Georgia, Kentucky and Idaho. In each state, however, the “establishment” Republican candidates have emphasized their conservative credentials, which narrows the party’s philosophical differences.
Citing similar dynamics in other states, Democrats said the GOP candidates who are trying to give Republicans control of the Senate will prove too far right for centrist voters in November.
Republicans need to gain six Senate seats to control the chamber. Holding Kentucky and Georgia against well-funded Democrats, both women, is crucial to their hopes.
Six states hold primaries on Tuesday. Georgia, Kentucky and Oregon have closely watched Republican contests for Senate. Pennsylvania and Arkansas have feisty gubernatorial primaries.
In Idaho, tea party-backed lawyer Bryan Smith is trying to oust Republican Rep. Mike Simpson, who’s seeking a ninth House term.
In Kentucky, tea partyers would love to knock off Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a 30-year senator they see as too accommodating to Democrats. But challenger Matt Bevin has struggled under a barrage of attacks from McConnell and his allies.
McConnell, caught off guard by the tea party movement in 2010, has scrambled to win support from conservatives who dislike compromise. He quickly allied himself with Sen. Rand Paul, who defeated McConnell’s hand-picked candidate in the 2010 primary.
And in February, McConnell voted against raising the debt ceiling, a never-pleasant vote that past party leaders often swallowed to avert a government default.
In Georgia, the Republican primary to succeed retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss drew a crowded field, including three U.S. House members. All are battling for the top two spots, with a July 22 runoff virtually certain.
Polls suggest Reps. Paul Broun and Phil Gingrey, who espouse tea party principles, may have faded in recent weeks. Georgia’s former Secretary of State Karen Handel won endorsements from Sarah Palin and the Tea Party Express.
Rep. Jack Kingston and businessman David Perdue have walked a careful line: showing more openness to establishment support while still catering to hard-core conservatives who dominate Republican primaries. When the U.S. Chamber of Commerce endorsed Kingston, Broun called him “the king of pork.”
That tag might have fit a few years ago. Kingston, a longtime Appropriations Committee member, has proudly steered millions of federal dollars to his district.
But tea party-driven attacks on federal spending have sent Republicans scurrying to tighter-fisted ground. Kingston raised eyebrows in January when he voted against an appropriations bill after working hard to insert funding for Savannah’s port.
In a sign of the narrowing differences between tea party activists and traditional Republican groups, Kingston was endorsed by Brent Bozell, an outspoken critic of Republican “moderation.”
And the Chamber backed Kingston even though he has opposed two of its priorities: raising the debt ceiling, and overhauling U.S. immigration policies to allow legal status for millions of people living here illegally.
“I don’t agree with folks in my family on every single issue, but I love them,” said Chamber of Commerce political director Rob Engstrom.
In Oregon, Republicans hope to knock off first-term Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley in November. Seeking the GOP nomination Tuesday are pediatric neurosurgeon Monica Wehby and state Rep. Jason Conger.
Arkansas’ primary holds drama for several state offices, but the U.S. Senate showdown will come this fall. Two-term Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor and first-term GOP Rep. Tom Cotton will claim their parties’ nominations Tuesday.
Cotton cleared the Republican field partly by steering solidly right on key issues. He differed with his fellow Arkansas Republicans, for instance, by voting against a major farm bill, which conservatives found too costly.
Some conservatives and liberals alike reject the notion that the Republican establishment is taming the tea party movement this spring. They point to Thom Tillis, who won the Senate nomination in North Carolina by defeating leaders of the tea party and the Christian Right.
Democrats said Tillis, speaker of the North Carolina House, is no moderate. He led the way for cuts in taxes, education spending and unemployment benefits. He boasts of rejecting federal funds to expand Medicaid.
“He is as in sync with the tea party as they can get,” said state Democratic spokesman Ben Ray.
Conservative activists said much the same thing, albeit with pride.
Matt Kibbe, who has feuded with McConnell as political chief of FreedomWorks, said the self-described liberty movement is winning the larger battles within the GOP.
“We’ve already changed the narrative, and the Republican Party is running on the principle of limited government,” Kibbe said. “Now we have to figure out what to do with a seat at the table.”
Bozell, who founded the conservative Media Research Center, said of the Republican primaries: “With virtually no exception, everyone is running as a conservative. No one is running as a moderate, no one is running as an anti-tea-partyer.”
Associated Press writers Bill Barrow in Georgia and Adam Beam in Kentucky contributed to this report.