Republicans on notice: Get ready for 2012 primary challenges

Senate Republicans’ campaign chief has warned colleagues to expect conservative primary challengers in 2012, and many are already moving to shore up their right flank in case of Tea Party-endorsed insurgencies back home.


Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine), one of the Republicans most likely to vote with Democrats, this week announced her support for an earmark moratorium and reiterated her call for a permanent extension of the George W. Bush-era tax cuts.

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Sen. Dick Lugar (Ind.), the Republican co-sponsor of legislation to grant permanent residency to the children of illegal immigrants who meet certain requirements, has ramped up his fundraising and polling.

And Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah), who could have to square off against Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), recently filed a friend-of-the-court brief challenging the constitutionality of Democrats’ new healthcare law. Many Tea Party voters consider that the greatest policy outrage of President Obama’s administration.

“I think there’s going to be a lot of candidates running,” Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) chairman, said Tuesday. “I’ve already told all of the incumbents to expect primaries and to get ready and to go and make sure you connect with your potential critics and people who don’t know what you’re doing up here on their behalf.

“I think everybody needs to be prepared for the new order of things,” he said.

Another incumbent working to do that is Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), who has expanded his meetings with constituents after being dogged by a scandal involving the wife of a former aide.

Brian Darling, director of government relations at the Heritage Foundation, warned that Tea Party candidates will be looking to knock GOP incumbents out of office —just as they did in the 2010 cycle.

“It seems that the Tea Party movement is prepared to replace what they see as establishment Republicans in conservative-leaning states with Tea Party candidates,” he said. “Although Senate Republicans look forward to 2012 as an opportunity to take control of the chamber, many in-cycle Republicans will be looking over their shoulders to see if Tea Party candidates decide to jump into primaries with these members.”

The National Review reported last week that Snowe would face an unnamed conservative primary challenger. And a recent Public Policy Polling survey found that 63 percent of Maine Republicans would favor replacing Snowe with a more conservative candidate.

Snowe said Monday she’d support an earmark ban that has long been touted by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who helped Tea Party-favored candidates in Senate GOP primaries this year — much to the ire of some of his Senate colleagues.

Snowe has also reiterated her support for a permanent extension of the tax cuts passed under President George W. Bush, even though she voted against the batch of tax cuts Congress approved in 2003. She first announced her position months ago.

But Snowe says times have changed. An increasing number of voters have come to see earmarks as symbols of wasteful spending, she said, and she warns it would be dangerous to raise taxes when the unemployment rate is over 9 percent. 

“I just think the time has come — people want us to place this moratorium of earmarks as a symbol of excess and sending the message that we get it,” said Snowe.

A lawmaker “always has to be concerned when you run for reelection,” she said, and ready for “opposition coming from every direction.” Her defense strategy is to “work hard” and meet often with constituents to “have conversations about the issues and my record.”

Lugar said he has heeded Cornyn’s warning.

“I take seriously what Sen. Cornyn has said, as well as what I read in the newspaper,” he said. “We have done substantial polling and we’re in pretty strong shape.”

Lugar, who voted for Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan  said he has begun to focus more on raising money and believes he has a “very good chance” of winning the nomination.

Ensign said he has spent the last two months traveling around his home state, “working hard and trying to earn people’s trust back.” But he stressed he has to do his job and can’t worry about a primary challenge. 

“I think most people are going to face a primary,” he said. “You just have to do the best job you can and let the chips fall where they may.”

Hatch is under threat after his home-state colleague, Sen. Bob Bennett, lost the Republican primary this year, even though Bennett is one of GOP Leader Mitch McConnell’s (Ky.) closest friends in the Senate.

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Hatch told The Hill in September that he expects a tough race in 2012.

“I’ve always had conservative challenges; I’ve never had an election where I haven’t had some challenges,” Hatch said. “We’re always concerned, but it’s not all-consuming to me. I run a hard race.

“I always run scared.” 

Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas) and Bob Corker (Tenn.) are two other Republicans who could face conservative primary challengers.

Senate conservatives view Hutchison as sitting farther toward the center of the ideological spectrum; she lost badly in the Texas gubernatorial primary against Rick Perry earlier this year. 

Hutchison, a longtime member of the Appropriations Committee, said Tuesday she too would support the earmark moratorium being demanded by Tea Party conservatives.

Conservatives such as Erick Erickson, of RedState.com, have named Corker as a potential GOP primary target. Corker recently told constituents he could fend off a Tea Party-backed challenger, according to the Memphis Flyer.

Bob Stevenson, a former Senate leadership aide and GOP strategist, said incumbents such as Hatch and Corker are well-positioned.

“The class that’s up has an outstanding record and [is] solid conservative,” he said. “But everyone needs to prepare. It’s smart to prepare for every potential.”