As the months-long primary season nears its end, Republican
leaders appear to have achieved their goal of producing more
disciplined Senate candidates who can avoid the kind of campaign
blunders that cost the party winnable races in 2010 and 2012.
Candidates backed by the party's establishment and business allies
secured Republican Senate nominations in states like North Carolina,
Colorado and Arkansas that will be hotly contested in November, in
some cases beating out rivals backed by the insurgent Tea Party
Tea Party challengers also failed to unseat any of the 12 sitting
Republican senators who are up for re-election.
The Republican establishment celebrated another victory on Tuesday
when their preferred candidate, former Alaska Attorney General Dan
Sullivan, won the nomination to oppose Democratic Senator Mark
Begich. Sullivan beat two other contenders, including one endorsed
by home-state Tea Party hero Sarah Palin.
The results have left Republicans upbeat about their prospects in
the Nov. 4 elections, when they need to pick up six seats from
Democrats to win control of the 100-seat chamber.
"It's the best recruiting class in decades," said Rob Engstrom of
the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has spent at least $15 million
to back business-friendly candidates this cycle.
Many forecasters now give Republicans a slightly better-than-even
chance of winning control of the Senate. They are heavily favored to
pick up open Democratic seats in South Dakota, Montana and West
Virginia, and six other competitive races will be fought in
conservative-leaning states that President Barack Obama lost when he
ran for re-election in 2012.
Obama isn't likely to be much help for Democrats. His approval
ratings have not topped 50 percent since early 2013, and vulnerable
incumbents like Colorado Senator Mark Udall have been avoiding him
on the campaign trail.
But a favorable political environment is no guarantee of success, as
Republicans have found in recent elections.
"One of the things we heard after 2012 is candidate quality
matters," said Brad Dayspring, communications director of the
National Republican Senatorial Committee, which ran a "candidate
school" for hopefuls to bring them up to speed on policy issues and
anticipated Democratic lines of attack.
That's a contrast to 2010 and 2012, when undisciplined candidates
doomed the party's chances of winning the Senate. Republican
candidate Christine O'Donnell lost the Delaware Senate race in 2010
after proclaiming she was "not a witch."
In 2012, Todd Akin lost Missouri after asserting victims of
"legitimate rape" had the ability to block a pregnancy. Richard
Mourdock saw his lead wither away in Indiana after saying a
pregnancy resulting from rape was something "God intended to
Those comments also hurt Republicans in other races, as Democrats
used them to argue the party was out of touch with mainstream
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"One thing Democrats were really good at was taking the Todd Akins
and Richard Mourdocks and Christine O'Donnells of the world and
using them to infect other Senate campaigns," said Jennifer Duffy,
an analyst with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
Republican Senate candidates with a flair for controversy won't be
on the ballot in November.
U.S. Representative Paul Broun, who called biological evolution and
the Big Bang theory "lies straight from the pit of Hell" finished a
distant fourth in the Georgia Senate primary in May. Milton Wolf, a
radiologist who joked about gunshot victims on Facebook, fell short
in his bid to unseat Kansas Senator Pat Roberts earlier this month.
Chris McDaniel, a Tea Party favorite who made sexually suggestive
comments about Hispanic women on a radio show, narrowly lost a
challenge to Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran.
Meanwhile, Democrats have been playing defense in Iowa after their
nominee Bruce Braley drew negative attention for threatening to sue
a neighbor over unfenced chickens and disparaging the farm state's
senior senator, Republican Charles Grassley, as a "farmer from Iowa
who never went to law school."
Democrats say Senate candidates backed by the Republican
establishment are no sure bet, having lost in recent years in
Montana, North Dakota, Wisconsin and Virginia.
This year, Republicans like Tom Cotton in Arkansas and Corey Gardner
in Colorado will have to explain their votes in the House of
Representatives on contraception, farm policy and other issues that
could alienate a statewide electorate, said Matt Canter of the
Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
"What makes a candidate loved by the Republican establishment is
sometimes the thing that makes them detested by voters," Canter
Still, Republicans like their chances.
"At the end of the day, this all comes down to product. The product
out there, the candidates, are of much stronger caliber than in
previous election cycles," said Paul Lindsay, spokesman for American
Crossroads, a Republican "Super PAC" that has spent at least $5.7
million in political races so far this year.
(Reporting by Andy Sullivan; Editing by John Whitesides and Cynthia
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