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April 19, 2012 4:30 PM Dog Fights

By Ed Kilgore

For all the talk of conservatives loyally beginning to close ranks behind Mitt Romney, all is not peaceful in the Republican valley.

Intra-party ideological warfare in GOP Senate primaries got a lot of attention in 2010—but not so much in this cycle. That’s probably because most of the action is in states where Republicans are dominant. Two contests involving incumbents—Utah, where a Tea Party challenge to Orrin Hatch looks to be fizzling (a state convention this weekend could award Hatch renomination without the inconvenience of a primary), and Indiana, where Dick Lugar remains in danger of losing to hard-core conservative Richard Mourdock on May 8—have gotten attention. But less so the open-seat states of Texas, Nebraska and Wisconsin, all of which are featuring heavily ideological primaries.

The stakes in these open-seat contests is turgidly summarized by Washington Examiner columnist Timothy Carney, who’s not real objective:

Conservative insurgents pose serious threats this year to establishment Republicans in at least three open-seat Senate races. In every case, political action committees and lobbyists have hugely favored the establishment pick with contributions. One reason: The GOP establishment rallies industry donors behind the Republican seen as stronger in November. A deeper reason: The revolving-door clique of K Street and Capitol Hill operatives needs Republicans elected to upper chamber who are likely to play ball.
“We don’t need a lot of Jim DeMint disciples,” former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott said last election cycle. “As soon as they get here, we need to co-opt them.” Lott is now a millionaire corporate lobbyist whose clients include bailout beneficiaries like Goldman Sachs and Citigroup, subsidy sucklers like General Electric and for-profit colleges and government contractors like Raytheon. He likes Republicans who don’t take their limited-government talk so darn seriously — team players who won’t rock the boat, in part because they are eying K Street jobs after retirement.

Leave it to ol’ Trent to provide his opponents with plenty of ammunition.

In Texas, “movement conservative” heartthrob Ted Cruz is going up against the ultimate Establishment choice, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, backed by Rick Perry and most other Texas GOP elected officials. DeMint’s Senate Conservative Fund, which supplied some well-timed late money to right-wing challengers like Christine O’Donnell in 2010, is backing Cruz, as is the Club for Growth, which is running independent ads. The wrinkle here is that Texas has a 50% requirement for nominations, and along with the two front-runners, Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert and the sportscaster everyone loves to hate, Craig James, are in the race, and if Cruz can knock Dewhurst into a low-turnout runoff, he has a real chance to win.

In Nebraska the same assortment of right-wing forces are backing state treasurer Don Stenberg against insider favorite Attorney General Jon Bruning. A PPP poll last month showed Bruning pulling away in that one, and it’s possible Nebraska GOPers are being a tad more pragmatic than they might otherwise be because of the presence in the race of former Sen. Bob Kerrey, who is trailing badly in general election polls but does have universal name ID and access to serious money.

It’s Wisconsin that’s most fascinating, in part because Democrats do have a solid shot of winning the general election with Rep. Tammy Baldwin, and in part because the “Establishment” candidate, former Gov. Tommy Thompson, is something of a national celebrity as a relic of those days when “innovative” GOP governors are said to be the party’s great treasure. He faces not one but two firebrands, the best-known being semi-perennial candidate Mark Neumann, though the other, state Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, has gained considerable notoriety for his role in Wisconsin’s wars over labor rights. Thompson is leading in the polls, but could be in real trouble if one of the conservatives drops out and/or if Neumann fully deploys his great personal wealth. It will be a while before people in Wisconsin focus on this race, since the primary isn’t until August, and there are a few other fish to fry in the meantime.

These primaries matter even if they don’t significantly improve Democratic prospects for picking up seats. Some day, somehow, the U.S. Senate may have to do a bit of governing, and at that point it might be useful to have the occasional GOPers on hand who does not think of their caucus as a dog kennel for pit bulls.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

Comments

  • T2 on April 19, 2012 4:54 PM:

    Dewhurst is filthy rich and has been pointing towards Governor for years.....when Kay B. Hutchinson got blown out of the water by Rick Perry (imagine what a terrible campaign she must have run) and announced her retirement, Dewhurst decided to go for it, once Perry decided not to (probably should have, huh, Rick?). So on one hand you have in Dewhurst a guy who the TX GOP establishment has been grooming/courting for years, and then there is Cruz, who's claim to fame is recent TeaParty backing. If Dewhurst isn't the ultimate winner here, it would be shocking. Naturally, either guy will make a horrible Senator.

  • Anonymous on April 19, 2012 5:00 PM:

    I have watched Democrats take advantage of Republican divisions in Kansas for years. It might happen in Wisconsin and maybe Nebraska this year. Republican division gives McCaskill a shot to keep her seat in Missouri. The key in all these races will be how well Obama does.

    By the way, I swallowed hard this morning and made my first donation of the cycle to Claire. A feckless DINO is better than a real Republican.

  • Lev @ LibraryGrape.com on April 19, 2012 5:05 PM:

    If you ask me (and I know you didn't, Ed, but you still sort of did by having a comment section), Wisconsin is a dead end for Republicans. Tommy Thompson isn't going to win the nomination because he endorsed the Affordable Care Act. Fitzgerald as a nominee would only serve to tie the state's Republicans even more to Scott Walker and those issues. Neumann is probably their best bet, but if someone loses election after election after election despite seeming solid on paper, there's usually a reason why. Republicans ought to just cut losses, there's plenty of fish in the sea this year. Though I suspect they won't, as the idea of an openly lesbian senator from the Midwest has got to be repugnant to many of them. I suspect we're at a point where nobody out of the crazy contingent really cares about that anymore, but you never know.

    Curiously unmentioned: the equally destructive intra-GOP race in Florida. Bill Nelson is looking vulnerable as ever, but the Republicans (including a former appointed senator and a scion of a famous baseball/political family) have really been tearing each other to shreds, and none have been all that impressive in terms of their political skills. (Connie Mack IV, descendant of the great old Philadelphia A's manager, really stepped in it when he bragged about how he voted present for Paul Ryan's budget in the middle of a GOP primary.) What once looked like a very competitive race in friendly GOP territory now looks like a much more winnable one for Nelson: http://politicalwire.com/archives/2012/04/18/nelson_leads_rivals_in_florida.html.

  • Ron Byers on April 19, 2012 5:08 PM:

    I am Anonymous

  • JEA on April 19, 2012 7:10 PM:

    Fantastic! Let 'em run as many far righties as they can! The further to the right the better. All the better to watch them get hammered come November.

  • MuddyLee on April 20, 2012 12:07 PM:

    I would like to see Vince and Linda McMahon (WWE) feature McConnell vs DeMint in a big rightwing cage match in their next pay per view. Palin and Christine O'Donnell could provide commentary.