Tea partyers flex muscle in three states with Tuesday primaries

Latest test unfolds in Senate races in Florida, Wisconsin and Connecticut

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Anti-establishment Republicans are gunning for the GOP nod in primaries for Senate seats in Connecticut, Florida and Wisconsin on Tuesday, in what is the last major test for tea partyers and their allies before November.

Connecticut’s Linda McMahon holds the strongest position by far, with a comfortable double-digit lead over former Rep. Christopher Shays, while things are less clear in Wisconsin, where businessman Eric Hovde and former Rep. Mark Neumann are trying to win the nomination over former Gov. Tommy Thompson in a crowded contest.

In Florida, the situation looks grim for former Rep. Dave Weldon, a favorite of social conservatives, who is trailing Rep. Connie Mack by more than 30 points in polling. Redistricting also forced freshman Rep. Sandy Adams, a tea party favorite, to run in a Republican primary against longtime Rep. John L. Mica, who maintains a lead in recent polls.

All of the challengers hope to harness the same kind of tea party influence and anti-incumbent mood that has driven the Republican Party over the last two years, ousting veteran lawmakers such as former Utah Sen. Bob Bennett in 2010 and Indiana Sen. Richard G. Lugar in a primary earlier this year.

Last month, those forces boosted tea party favorite Ted Cruz to the Texas GOP’s Senate nomination over establishment favorite Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.

The anti-incumbent mood dominated story lines in 2010, but has gained less attention this year, overshadowed in part by the presidential contest between Mitt Romney and President Obama.

And some Republicans have managed to fend off challenges: Utah Sen. Orrin G. Hatch won his party’s nomination, and in Missouri last week Rep. Todd Akin won a three-way primary against two candidates who had never served in Washington.

Still, tea partyers and their allies have notched some victories, including Mr. Cruz in Texas and Richard Mourdock, who defeated Mr. Lugar in Indiana.

“That level of intensity really waned from 2010 to 2012 during the critical months leading into the early primary states because everyone was so focused on the presidential primary,” said GOP strategist Chris LaCivita. “But obviously what happened in Texas was a big deal, with the establishment candidate losing.”

Mr. LaCivita is advising Mrs. McMahon, who won her party’s Senate nomination in 2010 by chasing former Rep. Rob Simmons from the race, and is poised to defeat Mr. Shays, another former congressman, on Tuesday.

She has bombarded Connecticut’s airwaves with advertisements using millions of dollars of personal wealth she poured into her campaign, while Mr. Shays couldn’t afford to air any ads until the final weeks of the race.

And she has carefully cultivated her image as a fresh-faced newcomer as Mr. Shays has slammed her over a career spent building World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc. into the largest professional wrestling company in the world and called into question her claims to be fiscally conservative by pointing to her largely self-funded campaign.

Even though Mr. Shays has pocketed endorsements from most of the state’s major newspapers, polls show him lagging by nearly 30 points even though he has spent his campaign touting 21 years of experience in the House. Polls also indicate he has a better chance of beating the leading Democrat in November than Mrs. McMahon, who lost the 2010 general election to Sen. Richard Blumenthal by 12 points.

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