WASHINGTON – Mainstream U.S. Republicans led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell defeated tea party challengers in key primaries Tuesday, setting the stage for their bid to regain full control of Congress in November.
Republicans lead the House of Representatives and are determined to wrest the Senate from President Barack Obama’s Democrats in this year’s midterm elections.
Voters in six states, from Georgia in the Southeast to Oregon in the Pacific Northwest, cast ballots on what became known as the “Super Tuesday” of the 2014 campaign. But most eyes were on Kentucky, a key battleground between traditional Republicans and members of the party’s more conservative, populist tea party.
The anti-establishment fervor sweeping much of the country seems not to have taken as strong a hold in Kentucky, and well-funded veteran incumbent McConnell, 72, trounced tea party challenger Matt Bevin in one of the most expensive — and closely watched — primaries of 2014.
If he is re-elected in November, and if Republicans gain a net six seats in the 100-seat chamber to regain control, McConnell would lead the Senate majority and be positioned to block Obama’s legislative efforts in his last two years in the White House.
“Send me back to Washington and Kentucky will always have a champion in the Capitol,” McConnell told supporters in his victory speech.
But he faces perhaps the most formidable election challenge of his 30-year Senate career in Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, who won her party’s primary and immediately set her sites on ousting McConnell.
“Mitch McConnell would have you believe that President Obama is on Kentucky’s 2014 election ballot,” Grimes told supporters, referring to McConnell warning voters that Grimes would merely be a back-bencher for a president pushing his unpopular health care law and other liberal mandates.
“Sen. McConnell, this race is between you and me,” the 35-year-old Grimes said. “That’s the name that appears on the ballot.”
Arkansas, Idaho and Pennsylvania also held primaries Tuesday. On June 3, another eight states follow suit.
The entire House, currently held by Republicans, is up for grabs and analysts expect the party will retain control; the question is whether Democrats can cut into the Republican majority.
The Democrat-led Senate could swing the Republicans’ way, polls show, so the Senate races are among the most fiercely fought.
More than a third of the seats (36 of 100) are in play, and at least seven Democrat-held seats are seen as at risk.
Candidates and supporters are spending tens of millions of dollars on each Senate race amid an epic battle over who controls the legislative agenda in Washington.
In Georgia, establishment Republicans could claim another victory. Two mainstream Senate candidates, businessman David Purdue and Rep. Jack Kingston, will likely enter a runoff, defeating three conservative candidates — including a tea party congressman.
And in Pennsylvania, incumbent Republican Rep. Bill Schuster defeated tea party challenger Art Halvorson, in part by wooing conservatives groups.
Republican strategists want to line up fairly mainstream candidates who are not gaffe-prone.
In 2010 and 2012, tea party candidates who won primaries in Delaware, Indiana, Missouri and Nevada fizzled in the election.
Faced with the tea party surge, some mainstream candidates have adopted more conservative discourse: speaking out against big government, stressing the need to cut spending or embracing more conservative social positions on abortion or gay marriage.
“Matt Bevin’s principled challenge helped Sen. McConnell rediscover his conservative principles,” the tea party-linked group Freedom Works, which backed Bevin, said in a statement.