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Republican primary victories set the stage for Senate midterm elections

Mitch McConnell with his wife Elaine Chao,  following his victory in the Republican primary, Tuesday, May 20, 2014, at the Mariott Louisville East in Louisville, Kentucky.

Timothy D. Easley/AP

If there's one takeaway from this week's Senate primaries, it's that the Republicans have a realistic shot at winning control of the Senate during midterm elections this November. That would give them control of both houses of Congress and enable them to frustrate the final two years of Barack Obama's presidency.

To be a real contender, the party had to get through the primary season with a slate of electable candidates. Mission accomplished. Six states narrowed their fields for the primaries on Tuesday, and the Republican establishment continued its winning streak against the upstart wing of Tea Party hardliners.

Here's what we know about the U.S. political scene heading into the summer:

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The Republican establishment has its party back

In 2012, Richard Lugar, a moderate Republican senator from Indiana, assumed he would win his party's nomination with ease. The Tea Party had other ideas and Mr. Lugar's complacency likely cost the Republicans a Senate seat as the hardliner the party chose was beaten easily by the Democratic challenger. The more strident Tea Party wing also blocked Republican leaders from co-operating with their Democratic counterparts, causing legislative gridlock that culminated in a three-week government shutdown last fall.

Republican elders mobilized at the end of last year to block Tea Party groups from choosing unelectable and obstructionist candidates in the 2014 primaries. They have yet to lose any significant contests, getting their candidates on the Senate ballot in North Carolina, Georgia and Oregon and protecting incumbents from Tea Party challenges in Kentucky and Texas.

Payback is expensive

One major U.S. news organization said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell beat his Tea Party challenger "without breaking a sweat." That assumes there were no sweat stains on the $11-million (U.S.) that Mr. McConnell spent in the first four months of 2014 crushing a political neophyte.

Mississippi's Thad Cochran, the Republican senator thought to be most vulnerable in the primaries, raised $2.9-million in the first quarter, more than he raised through the entirety of his last campaign in 2008 and three times as much as his 2014 primary challenger, state senator Chris McDaniel, has put in the bank. The two Georgian Republicans who will compete in a runoff election for the party's senate nomination on July 22 spent a combined $10-million separating themselves from a pack of conservative hardliners. And so on.

Much of the money is coming from outside the states in which the contests are being held. Three Wall Street banks rank among Mr. McConnell's four biggest donors. According to, a website that monitors election spending, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has handed out director contributions of about $300,000 in this election cycle and has spent more than $12-million on its ads and other forms of indirect political contributions.

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No country for moderate Republicans

The Tea Party dislikes the narrative that it is losing to the establishment. The movement's leaders say their goal has always been to stiffen the resolve of a party that described itself as the home for conservatives, but had come to resemble too closely the Democratic enemy.

"Thanks to the work of thousands of activists across Kentucky, we are building a constituency of liberty, and politics is sometimes a lagging indicator," Matt Kibbe, president of a Washington-based Tea Party group called FreedomWorks, said in a statement after Mr. McConnell's win Tuesday. "When the establishment runs on our issues, it's clear that there is a larger cultural shift happening here. Constitutional conservatives and libertarians are setting the agenda in the Republican Party."

Spin? Maybe. But there is no denying the Tea Party has pushed Republican candidates away from moderation, especially in the U.S. South. Both of the remaining candidates for the Senate nomination in Georgia are on the record as being skeptical that climate change is real. Virtually everyone running for a Republican nomination this year says they would repeal Mr. Obama's health law, even though national polls consistently show that a majority of Americans would rather see Obamacare fixed than scrapped.

The one notable exception to the rightward shift of Republican candidates is Monica Wehby, a pediatric neurosurgeon who won the party's Senate primary Tuesday in Oregon. Dr. Wehby is pro-abortion and comfortably beat a challenger who drew support from anti-abortion groups. Her win was another example of the establishment elevating candidates who can win over those who appeal to special interests. Dr. Wehby gives Republicans an outside chance in liberal Oregon. They would have had no chance with a Tea Party candidate.

The Democratic playbook

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Majority Leader Harry Reid's hold on the Senate is in trouble. The flawed health-care overhaul orchestrated by the Democratic majority in 2010 figures to be an issue in every race. The President's party typically does poorly in midterm elections. Democratic senators from three states won by Mitt Romney in 2012 aren't running, all but handing Mr. McConnell three of the six seats he needs to take control from Mr. Reid.

That will force Democratic leaders to play defence. Democratic incumbents in North Carolina, Minnesota, Louisiana, Colorado and Virginia rank among the 10 biggest money raisers in the Senate this year. The three extra seats the Republicans need for the majority will be expensive.

Some Democratic candidates will have to run against their President, or at least keep a healthy distance. "If he's coming to Alaska at any point, I don't need him to campaign for me," said Democratic senator Mark Begich.

Mr. Begich, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, and Kay Hagan of North Carolina all object to Mr. Obama's handling of the Keystone XL pipeline. Alison Lundergan Grimes, who is challenging Mr. McConnell in Kentucky, said in her acceptance speech Tuesday, "I don't agree with the President's war on coal."

But there may also be an opportunity to play a little offence. The Republican math for a majority in the Senate doesn't factor losing a seat the party already holds. Ms. Grimes in Kentucky and Michelle Nunn in Georgia are strong candidates from political families. While their Republican opponents have been fighting intra-party battles, Ms. Grimes and Ms. Nunn have raised $8-million and $7-million, respectively. Polls suggest both women are at least as popular as the Republicans they will be running against, and perhaps even more so.

Kentucky has a Democratic governor, and former president Bill Clinton won there. Atlanta and its suburbs are rich territory for Democrats, and there is quiet talk in Washington that a visit by the President could help turn out the city's growing block of black and Hispanic voters. Winning either state will be a long shot, but Democratic strategists will be tempted to try.

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About the Author
Senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation

Kevin Carmichael is a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, based in Mumbai.Previously, he was Report on Business's correspondent in Washington. He has covered finance and economics for a decade, mostly as a reporter with Bloomberg News in Ottawa and Washington. A native of New Brunswick's Upper St. More


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