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Analysis: Southern Senate races expose fault line that GOP must correct

Incumbents’ weak victories show bitter primaries have become the new normal

♦By Rich Shumate, editor

southern states ttankTea Party-backed insurgents struck out in their quest to unseat sitting Southern Republican U.S. senators this year, with a final tally of 0-for-5.

Mugshot CFPBut while those results are arguably a significant victory for the powers that be in the GOP, a closer look at the results shows a deep and potentially problematic fault line running right through the party. And the rancor and contention generated by the establishment’s aggressive push back against the Tea Party has made that fault line wider.

Historically, sitting senators rarely face much of a battle for renomination. If they have any opposition at all, it is usually dispatched with an easy majority of 70 or 80 percent. While that is still largely true for Democrats, for Republicans — in the South and elsewhere — bitter primary contests seem to have become the new normal. True, all the incumbents survived this year. But they didn’t exactly set the world on fire.

In Tennessee, Lamar Alexander — a well-respected former Cabinet secretary and university president who has won statewide office four times — could only manage a meager 50 percent, while in Mississippi, Thad Cochran was dragged into a runoff that he only survived with the help of Democrats.

John Cornyn in Texas and Lindsey Graham in South Carolina did a bit better (59 percent and 56 percent, respectively), but they should be thankful that their opposition was as weak as it was. If bigger names had gotten into either of these races, the outcome might have been very different.

The Southern GOP senator who performed the best was Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who took 60 percent in his race, despite an avalanche of outside help given to his opponent, Matt Bevin. But that brutish primary did nothing to help McConnell’s prospects in a tough race this fall with Democratic Secretary of State Alison Ludergan Grimes.

What these races, collectively, show is that 40 percent or more of the Republican primary electorate is unhappy enough with their own elected leaders that they are prepared to vote them out — even if that means nominating little known candidates who, in many cases, seem less than fit to sit in the Senate.

For the time being, the GOP might be able to ignore this fault line because there is little indication, except perhaps in Kentucky, that Democrats will be able to take advantage of the Republican schism to flip seats in November.

But if Republicans can’t figure out a way to avoid this internal warfare, Democrats are eventually going to figure out a way to use it to their advantage. And that presents a real and present danger to the political hegemony that the GOP has built in the South.

Yes, 2014 was a victory for the establishment. But it was also a danger-Will-Robinson moment. And the bitterness left over from these primary fights has probably made the divisions within the party even worse, particularly in Mississippi.

Few of those Tea Party Republicans who feel scorned by their party are going to vote Democratic in November, but more than a few may stay home. Is this hemorrhage from the base likely to imperil these sitting Southern senators? No, except maybe for McConnell. But if the establishment can’t find a way to bridge this divide, there is certainly potential for trouble ahead.

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