Conservatives shift focus away from Senate Republican incumbents

The threat of conservative primary challengers against incumbent Republican senators has begun to subside as activists who want to remake the upper chamber are turning their attention to Democratic-held seats.

Three Republican senators are on the target list of national Tea Party-affiliated advocacy groups: Sens. Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Lamar Alexander (Tenn.).

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While these senators have compiled relatively centrist records, there is not the same fervor to punish lawmakers who rate poorly on conservative scorecards as there was in 2010 or 2012.

Instead, the 2014 battle between the Republican establishment and Tea Party upstarts will play out in races for Democratic-held seats, particularly in those states carried by Mitt Romney in last year’s presidential contest.

Independent political experts have said the lack of GOP unity in primaries has helped Democrats get elected over the last couple of cycles.

“The battleground for changing the Senate is in seats held by Democrats,” said Matt Hoskins, executive director of the Senate Conservatives Fund, a group founded by former Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). “A couple of cycles ago, the easiest way to add conservatives to the Senate was to trade a moderate Republican for a conservative Republican.

“We have accomplished that, to a large degree. Now the fight is to pick up seats from Democrats,” Hoskins said.

Hoskins and other conservative strategists are eyeing Republican primaries in Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota and West Virginia. With the exception of West Virginia, which is an open-seat race because of Sen. Jay Rockefeller’s (D) retirement, the winner of the GOP primary in each of these states would face a vulnerable Democratic incumbent.

Conservative groups such as FreedomWorks and the Club for Growth are watching Chambliss, Graham and Alexander closely. But unless viable challengers to those Republicans emerge, they will decide to spend their resources in states with Democratic-held seats.

“We usually watch every race. Whenever we decided to get involved against an incumbent, we have to know the incumbent is not good on our issues and the challenger is viable and there’s a big difference between them on policy,” said Barney Keller, spokesman for the Club for Growth.
Chris Chocola, president of the Club for Growth, told reporters in September that Graham is a potential target.

“Lindsey Graham has not fared well on our scorecard,” he said.

But a strong challenger to Graham has yet to emerge.

Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), considered by South Carolina conservatives a top-tier candidate, said last month he had “no interest” in running against Graham.

Matt Kibbe, the president and CEO of FreedomWorks, emphasized that his group will only get involved in a primary against a sitting GOP senator if the challenger has shown he or she has the “right skills.”

His group’s focus will be on finding conservatives who can win the chance to face Sens. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) in general-election match-ups.

“We’re looking at all of these potential Senate primary challenges,” he said. “Who is the Republican candidate who will take on the incumbent in Arkansas and Alaska? We want to repopulate the Republican Party with people who want to balance the budget.”

Republican senators faced well-funded primary challenges in 2010 and 2012.

The Club for Growth spent nearly $200,000 to defeat former Sen. Bob Bennett in the 2010 Utah Republican primary. It poured about $2.2 million in the Indiana Republican primary in 2012 to defeat former Sen. Dick Lugar. Richard Mourdock (R) ousted Lugar, but he later lost to now-Sen. Joe Donnelly (D).

FreedomWorks spent nearly three-quarters of a million dollars to force Sen. Orrin Hatch to run against an opponent in the Utah Republican primary, instead of letting him wrap up the nomination at the state party convention.

But conservative strategists learned from the Utah primary that money spent on a weak primary challenger is often wasted. Utah state Sen. Dan Liljenquist ran a disorganized campaign, in the opinion of some strategists. The Club for Growth stayed on the sidelines in the Utah race.

Political experts in Tennessee say there is no elected official who appears a credible challenger to Alexander, although they hold out the possibility a wealthy businessman could emerge to take him on.

Alexander gave possible rivals a strong disincentive to run when he secured the endorsements of the entire Tennessee House Republican delegation, except for Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.), who remains embroiled in an abortion-related scandal.

“There isn’t anyone with statewide name recognition who could give [Alexander] a challenge,” said John Geer, a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University. “I’m sure there are certain members of the Tea Party who would like someone more conservative, but he’s really popular in the state, even among people who are self-identified Tea Party voters.”

Alexander stepped down from his leadership post in the beginning of 2012, hoping to strike bipartisan deals with Democrats on a range of issues.

Of the three Republican incumbents facing primary threats, Chambliss is considered the most vulnerable.

GOP strategists say Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) is weighing a bid.

Julianne Thompson, chairwoman of the Atlanta Tea Party, said Karen Handel, Georgia’s former secretary of state, is another name frequently mentioned.

But defeating Chambliss could be tougher than winning a Republican primary in Arkansas or Alaska for the opportunity to run against a vulnerable Democratic incumbent in the midterm.

Alec Poitevint, a former state party chairman and longtime Republican committeeman, said Chambliss has “enormous support” among Georgia’s business and agriculture sectors.

As of Sept. 30, 2012, Graham had $4.3 million in cash on hand, Chambliss had $1.4 million and Alexander had $1.1 million.