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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.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell turns back Tea Party primary challenge

In Georgia, David Perdue and Jack Kingston advance to July 22 Republican primary runoff

♦By Rich Shumate, editor

kentucky mugLOUISVILLE (CFP) — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell easily turned back a Tea Party-inspired challenge Tuesday to win the GOP nomination for a sixth term representing Kentucky.

Meanwhile, in Georgia, St. Simons businessman David Perdue and U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston of Savannah won spots in a July 22 runoff for the Republican nomination for the Peach State’s open U.S. Senate seat.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell

McConnell took 60 percent of the May 20 vote, compared to 36 percent for Louisville businessman Matt Bevin, who had the backing of outside Republican groups critical of McConnell’s leadership, including the Senate Conservatives Fund and FreedomWorks.

However, the commonwealth’s other senator, Rand Paul, bucked his Tea Party supporters to back McConnell.

McConnell will now face Democratic Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes in November.

U.S. Senate hopeful David Perdue

U.S. Senate hopeful David Perdue

In Georgia, Perdue and Kingston sat atop a seven-candidate field, with Perdue at 31 percent and Kingston at 26. Former Secretary of State Karen Handel of Roswel came in third at 22 percent.

Two other sitting U.S. House members, Phil Gingrey and Paul Broun, trailed the three front-runners. Some establishment figures in the GOP had expressed concern that a victory by either Gingery or Broun would turn the Georgia seat into a Democratic target in November.

Michelle Nunn, the daughter of former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn, easily won the Democratic Senate nomination for the seat current held by U.S. Senator Saxby Chambliss.

Meanwhile, in Arkansas, Democratic U.S. Senator Mark Pryor and Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton both won their Senate primaries and will face off in November.

Kentucky GOP Senate candidate Matt Bevin slammed for speech at cockfighting rally

Bevin’s claim that the Founding Fathers were cockfighters is lampooned in new radio ad from Senator Mitch McConnell’s campaign

♦By Rich Shumate, editor

kentucky mugLOUISVILLE (CFP) — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is lampooning his Republican primary rival, Matt Bevin, for speaking at a cockfighting rally and then asserting that the Founding Fathers were “very, very involved” in the blood sport.

U.S. Senate candidate Matt Bevin

U.S. Senate candidate Matt Bevin

The McConnell campaign is airing a new radio ad calling Bevin “a comedy of errors” and playing an excerpt from The Colbert Report where host Stephen Colbert made fun of Bevin’s speech at the rally.

“Matt Bevin keeps making national headlines, but not in a good way,” the ad says. “Matt Bevin, a comedy of errors. But don’t let the joke be on you.”

Bevin spoke at a rally in Corbin, Kentucky, on March 29, sponsored by the American Gamefowl Defense Network. The group supports legalizing cockfighting, which is currently illegal in all 50 states.

In an subsequent interview with WHAS radio in Louisville, Bevin said he thought the event was a state’s rights rally and wasn’t aware it was in support of cockfighting. He also said he didn’t “condone the sport.”

“But here’s the thing: I’m not going to disparage people for exercising their First Amendment rights,” Bevin told WHAS, before adding an historical analysis that McConnell is now using in the radio ad:

“But it’s interesting when you look at cockfighting, and dogfighting as well, this isn’t something new. It wasn’t invented in Kentucky. For example, I mean, the Founding Fathers were all, many of them, very actively involved in all of this and always have been,” Bevin said.

The Humane Society of the United States’ Legislative Fund is calling on Bevin to drop out of the Senate race.

“Matt Bevin showed appalling judgment in associating himself with this band of lawbreakers and perpetrators of unspeakable animal cruelty,” said Michael Markarian, president of the group. “He’s brought discredit upon the state of Kentucky, and he should withdraw from the Senate race.”

Bevin, 47, of Louisville is a former investment adviser who now runs his family’s bell manufacturing company in New Hampshire. This is his first run for political office. His primary challenge to McConnell has drawn financial support from national conservative groups, including FreedomWorks and the Senate Conservatives Fund.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell

McConnell, 72, has been in the Senate since 1985. He was elected GOP leader in 2007 and would become majority leader if he wins re-election and Republicans pick up the six seats they need to take control.

Recent polling has shown McConnell with a wide lead in the primary race.

Whoever wins the Republican primary on May 20 will face Democratic Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes in the general election this fall.

McConnell is the Democrats’ top Senate target in 2014 and likely the only chance they have to pick up a seat anywhere in the South.

Poll: Arkansas Senate race between Pryor and Cotton remains a dead heat

New poll shows Pryor with a slight lead that’s within the margin of error

♦By Rich Shumate, editor

arkansas mugLITTLE ROCK (CFP) — Despite a deluge of negative television ads aired by both sides, a new poll shows the U.S. Senate race in Arkansas remains a statistical dead heat seven months out from the November election.

U.S. Senator Mark Pryor

U.S. Senator Mark Pryor

The Talk Business Hendrix College poll puts Democratic U.S. Senator Mark Pryor’s support at 45.5 percent, compared to 42.5 percent for his Republican opponent, U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton. The remaining 12 percent are undecided or for minor candidates.

The poll’s margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points, which makes the race between Pryor and Cotton a statistical dead heat.

In that same poll in October, Pryor had 42 percent and Cotton 41 percent, which was also within the margin of error.

U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton

U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton

This latest poll of 1,068 frequent Arkansas voters was taken April 3 and 4, amid a wave of negative ads from outside groups against both candidates.

Cotton is being criticized him for his work as a corporate consultant before getting into politics, while Pryor is being hit for his vote in favor of Obamacare.

he latest survey of 1,068 likely Arkansas voters was taken on April 3-4, 2014. – See more at:
he latest survey of 1,068 likely Arkansas voters was taken on April 3-4, 2014. – See more at:

The poll shows Pryor with a 10-point lead among women and Cotton with a 7-point lead among men. Cotton’s lead among voters who call themselves independent was 50 percent to 34 percent for Pryor.

The poll also found that Pryor led Cotton in three of the state’s four congressional districts, including the 4th District, which Cotton represents in Congress. The only district where Cotton had a lead was in the heavily Republican 3rd District in northwest Arkansas.


Analysis: Tea Party Senate challengers can take comfort from Texas

U.S. Senator John Cornyn’s weak margin of victory shows other incumbents might be vulnerable

♦By Rich Shumate, editor

southern states ttankThe good news for the other four Republican U.S. senators facing Tea Party challenges this year is that Senator John Cornyn won in Texas.

The bad news? Cornyn’s win was hardly impressive.ME sm

Facing a primary field that was, to be charitable, less than viable, Cornyn failed to clear 60 percent of the vote. More than four in 10 Texas voters in his own party wanted somebody — anybody — else.

Compare that result with the Republican primary race for governor, where Attorney General Greg Abbott swept almost 92 percent of the vote against three challengers.

Cornyn’s chief Tea Party challenger, U.S. Rep. Steve Stockman, jumped in at the last minute and ran an erratic campaign. That allowed Cornyn to survive.

But imagine what might have happened if a stronger Tea Party competitor had run. No doubt some Texas conservatives who passed on this race are now kicking themselves over what might have been.

Cornyn was a Tea Party target because he is the minority whip in the Senate. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is also facing a primary challenge from Louisville businessman Matt Bevin, who, unlike Stockman, is raising money and has the backing of outside conservative groups.

If the unhappiness with Cornyn seen in Texas is duplicated in Kentucky, McConnell could be in trouble.

Likewise, Senators Lindsey Graham in South Carolina, Lamar Alexander in Tennessee and Thad Cochran in Mississippi all face Tea Party challengers.

Alexander and Graham seem to be holding their own. Cochran, on the other hand, faces State Senator Chris McDaniel, who is also getting a boost from outside conservative groups, which sat on the sidelines in Texas.

And in addition to races with incumbents, the preferred GOP establishment candidates for seats in North Carolina, Louisiana and West Virginia are also battling Tea Party challengers. In Georgia, there’s a free-for-all among five major candidates, at least two of whom are expected to draw from the Tea Party part of the party.

Now that he’s survived the primary, Cornyn is the prohibitive favorite to win the general election. But if Tea Party challengers win in any of the other states where they have a shot, Democrats will be waiting in the wings.

That is causing heartburn in the GOP establishment. Former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour said as much when he opined recently that a McDaniel win in the Magnolia State could open the door for a Democrat.

Cornyn’s tepid showing in Texas isn’t making that heartburn any better.

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