Republicans fear rough primary could cost them the House and the Senate

Republicans are worried the long, drawn-out presidential primary could cost them the House and the Senate.

For months, Republicans had been bullish about their prospects for widening their margin in the House and picking off Democratic senators. But some are now questioning whether they could be done in if Mitt Romney limps out of the primary a severely weakened nominee.

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“The way this thing has been done has hurt the party some,” said one GOP House member facing a tough race. “There will be a whole lot more stability in the Republican Party overall as soon as we finalize who the presidential candidate is going to be. It’s cascading down into our races: People are all very undecided and not even paying attention.”

Romney remains the front-runner for the nomination but he hasn’t been able to seal the deal. He won the most states and delegates on Super Tuesday, but he failed — yet again — to land the knockout punch needed to make him the prohibitive favorite.

The pattern is fueling concerns in GOP circles that while Romney is doing well, it might not be good enough to defeat President Obama. 


That would make keeping control of the House and winning a majority in the Senate even more important.

Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), now head of FreedomWorks for America, voiced his concern in February when he told CNN the GOP needed to “build a legislative wall” around the White House.

And George Will wrote in his Sunday Washington Post column that conservatives “should have as their primary goal making sure Republicans wield all the gavels in Congress in 2013.”

Republicans are favored to keep control of the lower chamber, according to an analysis of House races done by The Hill. And the GOP only needs four seats (if Obama wins reelection) to take control of the upper chamber, although that will likely be a tougher climb.

“You almost have a reliving of the Civil War going on in the Republican Party right now,” said Craig Smith, a speechwriter in the Ford and first Bush administrations.

Concerns about the prolonged primary calendar, with its proportional system of awarding delegates, were first reported earlier this month by The Hill. Top Republican National Committee members plan to reconsider the rules at the next committee meeting, slotted for late spring in Phoenix.

Not everyone expected the primary to go on this long. Some bold early predictions had Romney wrapping up the nomination by New Hampshire’s primary in early January. But Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum have racked up enough victories to keep the race going, perhaps into May or June.

Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), a Gingrich supporter, said Super Tuesday proved Republicans are still not at peace with a Romney ticket, but acknowledged a protracted brawl could favor Obama. 

Romney supporters say Republicans who grumble about his inability to lock down the nomination early on have misplaced their frustration.

“The reason the race is dragging on has nothing to do with who’s running for president, it has to do with the fact the [Republican] party changed the rules,” said Charlie Black, a GOP strategist who is informally advising the Romney campaign.

And Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), a Romney backer, said it was time for Romney’s rivals to bow out, just as Romney stepped aside for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008 for the good of the party.

Romney won six of 10 states on Tuesday, including the pivotal contest in Ohio. He also expanded his lead in the delegate race, where most counts show him more than doubling his nearest rival, Santorum.

Romney’s campaign used those results to argue his lead has become insurmountable, weaving in the not-so-subtle theme that for the good of the GOP, his opponents should consider making their exit.

“Super Tuesday dramatically reduced the likelihood that any of Gov. Romney’s opponents can obtain the Republican nomination,” Romney’s political director, Rich Beeson, wrote Wednesday in a memo. “As Gov. Romney’s opponents attempt to ignore the basic principles of math, the only person’s odds of winning they are increasing are President Obama’s.”

But in Ohio, Romney barely edged out Santorum in a race that wasn’t called until after midnight, highlighting the real uncertainty that persists among the GOP electorate about whether to coalesce behind Romney. Exit polls showed he continued to struggle among blue-collar voters, Tea Party supporters and those who self-identify as evangelical or “very conservative.”

Most troubling for Romney and his team is that they’ve been in this position before. Romney won a crucial contest in Florida and another soon after in Nevada, but his air of inevitability was deflated days later when Santorum beat him in three other states. Later in February, Romney edged out the former Pennsylvania senator in Michigan, but by a margin so small that it robbed him of the ability to declare a total victory.

Buoyed by tight races that have suggested that victory is within reach, Romney’s opponents have had little incentive to drop out. As long as both Santorum and Gingrich stay in, they divide the anti-Romney vote and help his prospects. 

But they also play directly into the Democratic playbook.

“In every primary, we’ve seen just how disappointed Republicans are in their candidates,” Obama campaign manager Jim Messina told reporters on Wednesday. “The longer the Republican primary goes, the longer we have to continue to build.”