- The Washington Times - Monday, April 28, 2014

Some of the fiercest primary battles this midterm season are on the Republican side — which may be bad news for Democrats.

While several Senate Republicans face multiple primary challengers, Democrats for the most part have avoided nasty and expensive internal battles to pick their candidates for November. But political analysts say that may reflect a vigorous debate inside the GOP and an expectation by Republican candidates that this is an excellent year to be on the ballot.

Dan Holler, a spokesman for the conservative activist group Heritage Action for America, said the wealth of primary fights reflects a struggle for power among Republican factions, often with establishment and business-backed candidates facing challenges from tea party rivals. Part of the rivalry, he said, reflects a tug of war over the party’s priorities in the wide-open race for the 2016 presidential nomination.

“There’s a lot more diversity of opinion within the Republican Party than the Democratic Party,” Mr. Holler said. “Is it going to be a party that’s just slightly different from the Democratic Party or a party that actually tries to do what they promise to, which is limit size and scope of government?”

Pollsters and pundits generally project Republicans to retain control of the House and to make a strong bid for the net six seats needed to capture the Senate majority. But Republicans’ focus on primary battles could give Democrats logistical and financial head starts in some key races this fall.

Only two Senate Democrats — Hawaii’s Brian Schatz and Montana’s John E. Walsh, both appointees — are expected to have serious primary challenges this year.

Republican veterans in the Senate, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Sen. Lindsey Graham of North Carolina and Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, face primary battles.

In critical states such as Georgia and Iowa, Democrats have coalesced around single candidates while Republicans engage in battles to determine their nominees.

Endangered Democratic incumbents such as Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska and Kay R. Hagan of North Carolina already are focused on November, but Republicans have yet to settle on their challengers.

In states where Republicans have united behind strong candidates — such as West Virginia, Colorado and Arkansas — the elections are seen as good opportunities to pick up Senate seats. But the bulk of the toughest primary battles remain inside the GOP.

Such restlessness and conflict are typical for the party that doesn’t control the White House, said Laura Brown, an associate professor at the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University.

“Political parties in their wilderness years, when they’re out of the White House, they tend to go through this self-reflective time frame, and the parties themselves start to essentially fight over which direction is going to bring them back to the presidency,” she said, noting that Democrats went through a similar period of internal battles in the 1980s.

Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist, said the political landscape reflects increased unity in the party.

“I think the reason why there are very few primary challenges is because there’s no equivalent of the tea party on the Democratic side,” Mr. Manley said. “There are some on the left that are trying to make some noise, but with very few exceptions, they’re not running to try to primary an incumbent.”

Although Democrats have no equivalent to the tea party, Mr. Holler said, more liberals such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio are beginning to make waves.

High hopes

Some argue that the outbreak of primary battles is a signal of political strength, not weakness.

The high number of Republican candidates means the party is confident of success in November, Ms. Brown said, while the many Democrats staying out of races suggest a bleak outlook.

“A year out from the election, strategic candidates basically take a look at the national environment and make a determination about whether or not their political party is going to be in good shape in that next election,” she said. “Then what happens is strategic candidates from the party that thinks they’re going to have a bad election, they don’t run, whereas strategic candidates from the party that thinks they’re going to have a good election, they do.”

Candidates who survive spirited primary challenges may be better prepared for the rigors of the fall campaign, having already road-tested their messages and organizations.

Another reason Democrats may not be willing to take on incumbents is that they don’t think they have good chances of winning the general election. In tossup Senate races in states such as North Carolina, Arkansas and Louisiana, Ms. Brown said, Democrats unhappy with the party’s incumbents still may not want to spend the money and energy for primary challenges only to lose the general election.

Ms. Brown suggested that Democrats nationally may have discouraged challenges in those states to show unified support of vulnerable incumbents.

The Koch theory

Justin Barasky, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, has a different take. He said Democrats have avoided primary challenges by fielding candidates and incumbents who are fighting harder than Republicans for the middle class.

“Republicans are at war with themselves over who can be the most conservative and who can best throw themselves at the throne of the Koch Brothers. As a result, they’ve had to waste time and money with divisive primaries,” Mr. Barasky said.

Some Republicans acknowledge that Democrats often avoid friendly fire in primary battles. In Georgia, for example, Michelle Nunn, a CEO for a nonprofit and daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn, has the Democratic Senate nomination sewed up, while a half-dozen Republicans are battling to get into a runoff that could prevent the party from picking its nominee until late July.

“Democrats are just a lot better at clearing the field,” Rep. Phil Gingrey, one of the six Republicans, told Fox News last week.

Mr. Manley said fewer primaries may benefit Democrats, at least financially.

“You get to spend more time, attention and money focusing on the general elections and less time worrying about facing a grueling primary,” he said.

Mr. Holler of Heritage Action for America, however, said the vetting process is healthy and that even Republicans who lose primaries likely will support the nominee.

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