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GOP frets over nightmare scenario for Senate primaries

Republicans are facing an early headache of nightmare primary fights as they plot to keep control of the Senate.

In Alabama and Kansas, two deep-red states that should be safe GOP seats, the party is facing bids from conservatives Roy MooreRoy Stewart MooreCPAC, all-in for Trump, is not what it used to be Shelby won't run for reelection The Seventeenth Amendment and the censure of Donald Trump MORE and Kris Kobach, respectively, who are viewed as unelectable in a general election and have a history of stealing the national spotlight.

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Republicans say they feel good about their chances to hold onto the chamber in 2020 — when they will be playing defense in mostly red territory — but bloody fights in those two states could help widen Democrats’ path back to the majority.

A GOP operative watching the Senate races who is “cautiously optimistic” about Republicans keeping the majority, warned that Republicans can’t “afford to play games” by potentially nominating a candidate with baggage that compromises their ability to win in November.

“We don’t need to be having any problems, it’s not a state we can stumble in. The map for the majority is OK, but if you have to start diverting resources to Kansas it complicates things,” the operative said, adding that Alabama is also viewed as a “must-win state.”

National groups have wasted little time staking out opposition to Moore and Kobach. The National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) and the Senate Leadership Fund (SLF), which is aligned with Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTanden withdraws nomination as Biden budget chief Boehner book jacket teases slams against Cruz, Trump Gun violence prevention groups optimistic background check legislation can pass this Congress MORE (R-Ky.), blasted both of their campaign announcements. Neither group has ruled out intervening in the primaries if either emerges as a viable contender for the party’s nomination.

A second Republican strategist added that the message against the candidates is that the two states should be easy Republican wins that will help the party keep control of the chamber — and “people like Kris Kobach and Roy Moore threaten that.”

“They both have a record of losses that doesn’t sit well with Republican voters,” the strategist added, characterizing the two candidates as an “unnecessary headache” and a “distraction” in the larger battle for the Senate.

It’s not the first time conservative challengers have created early frustrations for Republicans.

During the 2012 cycle, then-Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillThe Memo: Punish Trump or risk a repeat, warn Democrats GOP senators criticized for appearing to pay half-hearted attention to trial Hawley watches trial from visitor's gallery MORE (D-Mo.) was viewed as likely to lose her race until GOP nominee Todd Akin, who defeated more-mainstream picks during the primary, said that “if it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

In the same election cycle, conservative challenger Richard Mourdock defeated longtime Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) during the primary, only to lose against Democratic nominee Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyEverybody wants Joe Manchin Centrist Democrats pose major problem for progressives Biden and Schumer face battles with left if Democrats win big MORE.

But the party has become more adept at beating back primary candidates they either view as anthema to general election voters or likely to spark a fierce intraparty fight.

National Republicans spent heavily in 2018 to successfully defeat former coal CEO Don Blankenship during the West Virginia Republican Senate primary. And, causing a sigh of relief for party leadership, Rep. Mark WalkerBradley (Mark) Mark WalkerNorth Carolina GOP condemns Burr for impeachment vote against Trump Madison Cawthorn throws support behind Mark Walker in NC Senate primary Democrat Jeff Jackson jumps into North Carolina Senate race MORE (R-N.C.) passed on challenging Sen. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisMcConnell backs Garland for attorney general GOP senators demand probe into Cuomo's handling of nursing home deaths CNN anchor confronts GOP chairman over senator's vote to convict Trump MORE (R-N.C.) for the party’s nomination next year.

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This cycle they are defending almost two dozen seats, compared to 12 that Democrats are trying to hold onto. But most of the GOP seats are in deeply red states, meaning the battleground for the Senate will likely be limited to a handful of seats like Maine, Colorado and Arizona.

The dynamic has left Republicans feeling optimistic about their ability to hold onto the Senate, where Democrats would need to win at least three seats and the White House in order to have a vice president break ties in their favor in an evenly-divided chamber, and four seats to win an outright majority.

“The map’s going to be fairly large, our members are going to have to work hard to win reelection and we think that they’re well positioned to do that,” said Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneSenate GOP whip: Murkowski's vote on Tanden is 'fluid' at the moment GOP says Ron Klain pulling Biden strings Rick Scott acknowledges Biden 'absolutely' won fair election MORE (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican.

Republicans also argue that Democrats have struggled to snag big-name recruits in several Senate races, including Georgia and Montana, that would allow them to expand the map of top-tier races beyond the handful of early toss-up states.

How much of a threat Moore and Kobach will be during the 2020 cycle, and if they can help expand Democrats’ path to retaking the Senate, remains to be seen.

Lacking Moore’s personal baggage, Kobach could be the bigger headache for Republicans. The former Kansas secretary of state lost last year’s gubernatorial election by 5 percentage points. Before that he was considered for a Cabinet post, headed up Trump’s panel investigating alleged voter fraud and was briefly considered for an administration job overseeing immigration policy.

“It seems to me that if you have just lost a statewide race that the chances of you winning, running again for another statewide race would be very difficult,” said Sen. Pat RobertsCharles (Pat) Patrick RobertsPat Roberts joins lobbying firm weeks after Senate retirement Senate swears-in six new lawmakers as 117th Congress convenes Window quickly closing for big coronavirus deal MORE (R-Kan.), who Kobach is trying to succeed. “Kris Kobach, once he makes up his mind, makes up his mind.”

McConnell sidestepped weighing in on the Kansas Senate race except to plug his preference that Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoChina plays the Trump card, but Biden is not buying it Trump: 'I can't imagine' any Republican would beat me in 2024 primary if I run Green New Deal's 3 billion ton problem: sourcing technology metals MORE get in the race.

“I’m not sure the president agrees with this, that I’d love to see the secretary of State run for the Senate in Kansas. But the filing deadline is not until next June,” McConnell said.

Moore won the party’s primary in 2017, including defeating Sen. Luther StrangeLuther Johnson StrangeAlabama zeroes in on Richard Shelby's future Sessions hits back at Trump days ahead of Alabama Senate runoff The biggest political upsets of the decade MORE (R-Ala.), only to narrowly lose to now-Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) by less than 2 points after facing several allegations of sexual misconduct with teenage girls when he was in his 30s. Moore, 72, denied the allegations, but Republicans are hopeful the damage will keep him in a distant third place during the 2020 race.

McConnell, asked about Moore during a weekly press conference, predicted that Alabamians have “seen quite enough of Roy Moore.”

Sen. Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyBlack Caucus members lobby Biden to tap Shalanda Young for OMB head On The Money: Senate panels postpone Tanden meetings in negative sign | Biden signs supply chain order after 'positive' meeting with lawmakers Passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act is the first step to heal our democracy MORE (R-Ala.) told The Hill that he had discussed the seat and various candidates with Trump.

“He’s damaged,” Shelby said, about Moore. “He wouldn’t be good for Alabama.”