Debt talks could redefine Senate races

Republican senators could find themselves with primary challenges in 2014 depending on how they handle the debt talks, a conservative group is threatening.

"The fiscal cliff negotiations and debt ceiling negotiations are going to define the primaries a lot better afterwards," Club for Growth President Chris Chocola told The Hill.

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The deep-pocketed, fiscally conservative group has been the biggest outside player in GOP primaries in recent years. They were a major factor in helping Sen.-elect Ted Cruz (R-Texas) win his primary, and gave Indiana Secretary of State Richard Mourdock (R) a big boost in his victory over Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.).

Chocola emphasized that he has “no idea” who the Club will target next year, and said much depends “on what happens with the fiscal cliff and debt ceiling” as well as previous votes.

“If Republicans vote for something that raises taxes, doesn't do any entitlement reform or spending cuts, does nothing to actually address our fiscal challenges every one of them is going to have a problem and we're the least of their problems, they'll have primaries everywhere,” he warned. “This is an important test for all Republicans: Whether they go along and accomplish nothing or stand up and try to solve our problems.”

He said that while the group wouldn't oppose closing tax loopholes if it was accompanied by a lowering of rates, if Republicans seek to increase revenue solely through loophole closures "that would be a problem" — and any tax increases would likely be a "non-starter" for the group.

Two Republican Senators who may end up as targets are Sens. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), both of whom have said recently they’re open to breaking with Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform pledge against raising any new taxes.

A number of Republicans have been mentioned as possibilities to run against Chambliss, with former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel (R) at the top of the list. Reps. Tom Price (R-Ga.) and Paul Broun (R-Ga.) also haven’t ruled out bids, although neither has openly discussed the race. Conservative blogger and CNN contributor Erick Erickson briefly flirted with the idea of a run before saying on Friday he wouldn’t go forward.

Chocola offered little criticism of Chambliss, pointing out that his 85 percent lifetime standing on the Club’s scorecard was “not bad” and brushing off the senator’s recent dust-up with Norquist.

“A lot of people beat him up for his comments over Grover's pledge. We tend not to care what they say, we care a lot about what they do,” he said. “Every race we look at the relative difference between the candidates, and right now we have no idea if anyone's even running. They'd have to clearly be better.”

While an established politician could raise enough money to give Chambliss a tough race without any major outside help, Price and Broun both have near-perfect lifetime scores from the group, making their decision-making process more interesting if one decides to run.

Graham has had a less conservative voting record, breaking with orthodoxy on immigration and climate change legislation and criticizing the Tea Party. He’s also been less conservative on some fiscal issues, which has led Chocola and others to criticize him in the past.

Chocola pointed out that there had to be a proven conservative who could mount a strong campaign before they’d jump into any race, and no big names have emerged as possible challengers to Graham.

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), the godfather of conservatives in the state, could hold major sway over whether or not Graham will face a tough primary. Plus he’s wildly popular with Tea Party backers and his opposition to the debt ceiling increase last year was seen as a major reason no other South Carolina Republican voted for it.

DeMint told The Hill earlier this week that he and Graham have a “good working relationship” and expected that they would vote the same way on any legislation to avoid the fiscal cliff.

When asked whether he would work to dissuade people from running against Graham or would back the senator, DeMint said he wanted to talk policy, not politics, and moved on to other questions.