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‘Bloody’ primaries leave GOP wounded

Lack of unity gives Democrats hope

- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 9, 2010

Republicans this fall are hoping that what doesn't tear them apart will only make them stronger.

In a year in which the polls are pointing to major gains in Congress and the states, one of the few sources of GOP anxiety is the lingering bad blood from a string of hard-fought party primaries. Crowded GOP fields - and surprise wins by outsiders and "tea party"-backed insurgents in races from Alaska to Florida - have opened some wounds that have yet to heal.

Democrats have been quick to play up the divisions, but Republicans counter that the primary races have helped gird their candidates for the main event in November.

"I generally believe primaries toughen up a candidate," said Charlie Gerow, a Republican strategist and chief executive officer of Pennsylvania-based Quantum Communications. "They're positive and useful."

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, chairman of the Republican Governors Association, said the vast majority of tea party activists have come under the GOP tent, despite the slew of contested primaries. The RGA, following its past practice, refused to endorse individual candidates in the GOP primaries.

"I am glad that the tea party movement recognized that the Republican Party is where we need to be," he told reporters at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast this week. It would have been "far worse" for the party if vast numbers of tea party candidates had run as independents, Mr. Barbour added.

But it has become a virtual parlor game on Democratic political blogs to point up losing GOP hopefuls who have not endorsed the primary winner - and even have hinted at a third-party run.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, upset by tea party favorite Joe Miller in last month's primary, has yet to endorse her rival or to definitively rule out a third-party bid. Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum did not endorse health care executive Rick Scott after losing the GOP gubernatorial primary to the self-financed outsider. Former Rep. J.D. Hayworth has not publicly come out for Sen. John McCain after falling short in his challenge in the Senate primary in Arizona.

Roughly a dozen GOP primary losers have not endorsed winners, including in races between tea party favorites and established candidates. In South Carolina, ousted incumbent Rep. Bob Inglis is not endorsing his victorious tea-party-backed challenger, Trey Gowdy. In Washington state, Clint Didier, who lost the GOP senatorial primary to party favorite Dino Rossi despite the support of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, said Mr. Rossi must meet a list of policy demands before he will endorse him.

"For a party that is supposed to have a banner year, immense disunity could spell trouble for the Republican Party," Scott Keyes wrote on the liberal blog ThinkProgress.com.

Democrats have had some sharp primary fights this year, though far fewer than the Republicans. In the most high-profile race, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania quickly endorsed Rep. Joe Sestak after losing the Democratic primary in his bid for a sixth Senate term.

Mr. Gerow, who worked for Ronald Reagan's 1980 presidential campaign, even offered an argument that Democrats are better equipped to handle tough primaries than their opponents. He pointed to the 2002 Pennsylvania gubernatorial race as an example.

That was when Philadelphia Mayor Edward G. Rendell won a long, tough, expensive Democratic primary against Bob Casey, now a senator. GOP candidate Mike Fisher entered the general election without a primary opponent - and lost by a 53 percent to 44 percent margin.

"Republicans didn't want to get bloody," Mr. Gerow said.

Republicans accuse Democrats of overplaying the internal tensions and argue that in some cases, a tough primary produces a better, battle-tested candidate. They note that many survivors of primary races this year - including Senate candidates such as Mr. McCain, Rand Paul in Kentucky and Mike Lee in Utah - are still strong favorites to prevail in November.

Rep. Michael N. Castle, the moderate Delaware Republican who was expected to cruise to an easy win for the state's open Senate seat, has been forced to spend money and resources to fend off a late surge from tea party-backed challenger Christine O'Donnell.

Mr. Castle is still expected to clinch the nomination in the Sept. 14 primary, and the primary fight is seen by political analysts as sharpening the low-key Castle campaign for the general election fight against Democrat Chris Coons, New Castle County executive.

Jessica Levinson, director of political reform for the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies, said the 2008 Democratic presidential primary is a classic example of how a party benefited from a long, hard-fought race because it helped party nominee Barack Obama defeat Mr. McCain.

"The race made both much better candidates," she said. "It gave them a chance to react to negative publicity, get their sea legs and gain experience in running a serious campaign," she said.

However, Ms. Levinson adds that the need to spend money also is a major concern in tough primaries, particularly when candidates face self-funded opponents. "In a bad economy, you don't want to max out early," she said.

Still, not everybody agrees that a hard, expensive fight for the party nomination is the best scenario.

"You always want to avoid a primary fight," said Ben Tulchin of Tulchin Research, a San Francisco-based Democratic research and polling firm. "It's a double whammy - damaging to the reputation and to your money in the bank."

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