The battle for control of the U.S. Senate in November began to take shape on Tuesday, as six states went to the polls for the biggest single day of voting this primary season. Establishment Republicans fared well, a sign that conservatives in the party may be willing to exchange ideological purity for a chance to take over the Senate this fall.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell cruised to victory in his Kentucky primary, defeating tea party challenger Matt Bevin with 60 percent of the vote. Bevin, a businessman whom WORLD profiled last month, was one of several conservatives seeking to unseat establishment Republicans, but he couldn’t translate early endorsements and financial support into a competitive race.
Bevin’s first campaign was no match for McConnell’s massive war chest and veteran campaign machine. In a concession speech early Tuesday evening, Bevin blasted McConnell’s ruthless campaign tactics: “The attacks that we’ve received have made our opposition smaller people,” he said. “It has cheapened their accomplishments.”
Bevin said he has “no intention” of supporting the Democratic platform and said there is “zero chance” the solutions for America will come through the Democratic party. Yet he stopped short of endorsing McConnell, who faces an even bigger test this fall in Alison Lundergan Grimes, 35, who easily secured the Democratic nomination. The stakes are high: If McConnell, 72, survives Grimes’ challenge, he could become the Senate Majority Leader in January—if Republicans capitalize on the opportunity to take over the Senate.
Control of the Senate may have been on some voters’ minds as they consistently chose safer candidates over upstart tea party challengers, who hold to more conservative positions but are less predictable. In Georgia, a crowded field of Republicans, including three current House members, split the vote to replace retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss, but the top two were both establishment-backed. Neither David Perdue, the former CEO of Dollar General, nor Rep. Jack Kingston approached 50 percent of the vote, so they will square off in a July 22 runoff. The winner will face Democrat Michelle Nunn, the daughter of former Gov. Sam Nunn, who coasted to an easy victory and represents Democrats’ best chance to pick up a Senate seat.
In Arkansas, both incumbent Sen. Mark Pryor, a Democrat, and GOP challenger Rep. Tom Cotton, secured their nominations uncontested, setting up a showdown in November that represents one of Republicans’ best pickup opportunities. Pryor is one of a handful of Democrats clinging to seats in deep red states.
In Oregon, pediatric neurosurgeon Monica Wehby won the Republican nomination to run against incumbent Democrat Sen. Jeff Merkley.
In perhaps the most closely watched House primary, establishment-backed Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, fended off a challenge from attorney Bryan Smith. The tea party had made the race a top priority, and outside groups poured in money for both sides. But Simpson took almost 62 percent of the vote.
While Ben Sasse delivered a tea party victory last week in the Nebraska Senate race, business-friendly groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have come to the rescue of many establishment candidates so far this primary season. Kyle Kondik with the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics said establishment Republicans seem to be getting the candidates they want to this point, but that may or may not translate to success in November: “Whether their candidates are the right ones remains to be seen.”
Republicans would need to gain six seats to take over the Senate, where Democrats currently hold a 55-45 edge. The GOP thought it could take the Senate in 2012, but a string of losses in winnable states kept Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., in charge.
On Tuesday, National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Greg Walden, R-Ore.,—who himself defeated a tea party challenger on Tuesday—unveiled a Republican goal to get to 245 seats in the House this year. That would mean picking up a dozen seats and would put Republicans with a stronger majority than in 2010, when the GOP regained control of the House.
“I’m confident that with so many outstanding recruits in districts all across the country, and with the wind at our backs, that we will continue to expand the playing field and rise to this challenge,” Walden said. “If we do, maybe we can finally send [House Minority Leader] Nancy Pelosi into retirement and back to San Francisco.”
Although tea party candidates failed to advance on Tuesday, several of them had an effect, including Bevin, who exposed voter discontent with McConnell by picking up 35 percent of the vote against a five-term incumbent. McConnell, once the face of Kentucky politics, had to use an ad in the closing days of the campaign featuring freshman Sen. Rand Paul, a conservative who is considered a viable 2016 presidential candidate. It was a visible admission of McConnell’s diminishing influence.