Senate 2008 Guru: Following the Races

Keeping a close eye on developments in the 2008 U.S. Senate races

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Unexpected Republican Primaries

[Cross-posted at my Swing State Project diary.]

2008 could be a record year for unexpected Republican primaries. Whether or not strong contenders emerge, Republican primaries are, of course, expected in states from South Dakota to New Jersey, states with Democratic Senate incumbents but a handful (or more) of ambitious Republicans itching to take their shots. And, of course, there will be notable Democratic primaries ranging from Minnesota to Georgia. But the number of unexpected potential Republican primaries for Senate in 2008 is running high.

There are a number of reasons for this. One reason, illustrated more clearly in the Republican Presidential primary, is general discontent by Republican voters of Republican candidates and officials. Another reason is that Republicans are particularly divided over the issue of immigration reform. Another reason could be that, in many races, the incumbent Republican simply isn't conservative enough for the base. Though several of these states with unexpected potential Republican primaries are traditionally red states, the emergence of a viable Democratic challenger in many of these states makes the possibility of a primary all the more daunting for Republicans.

Lack of Leadership

Kentucky: Many elements of the conservative base are growingly unhappy with Mitch McConnell's helming of Senate Republicans, and none have been more vocal than the conservative blogosphere across the country, many of whom have focused on their discontent with McConnell's support for Bush's bipartisan immigration reform attempts. Further, in Kentucky, 1995 GOP gubernatorial nominee Larry Forgy, a loyalist to corrupt incumbent Governor Ernie Fletcher, has hinted that he would consider or support a primary challenge to McConnell if he felt McConnell did not do enough to help Fletcher's embattled re-election bid. While McConnell enjoys a hefty bankroll, the power of his political machine has diminished as demonstrated by Anne Northup's gubernatorial primary defeat to Ernie Fletcher. If a Republican primary challenger sapped significant resources of McConnell's, he could find himself very vulnerable to a viable Democrat, say either 2003 Lt. Gov. nominee Charlie Owen or state Attorney General Greg Stumbo.

Immigration Reform

South Carolina: Primarily driven by anger over Lindsey Graham's support for immigration reform, the South Carolina conservative netroots have begun voicing their displeasure with Graham and desire for a primary challenger. Dump and Dump Lindsey Graham express South Carolina conservatives' preference for a replacement for Graham. As Hotline's Blogometer reported:

A new project launched by conservative bloggers promises a primary challenge for any GOP Senator who votes for the [immigration reform] proposal. The most prominent in that field? None other than McCain supporter Lindsay Graham (R-SC). So far, there have been rumblings of a primary challenge for Graham but no candidate yet. If the revived immigration plan comes up to a vote, will Graham's yea or ney be the triggering mechanism?
This project is called The Payback Project and it seems to have successfully spooked Saxby Chambliss of Georgia into distancing himself from the immigration reform legislation. If Graham continues his support for the immigration reform legislation, expect talk of a primary to intensify. After that, Democrats still need to come through with a viable Senate candidate.

Not "Conservative" Enough

Oregon: For more than a decade, Gordon Smith has been Oregon's only statewide Republican. He has achieved this by presenting himself as a moderate who can voice Oregon's concerns to the Republican leadership in the White House and Congress. But with the Republican brand inreasingly tarnished, and with Smith's back-and-forth on Iraq demonstrating his lack of integrity, he is coming off as too far to the right for Oregon moderates but also too fiscally irresponsible for conservatives. As such, 1998 GOP gubernatorial nominee Bill Sizemore has hinted that he would consider a primary challenge to Smith. While Democrats have had a difficult time recruiting a top-tier challenger for Smith, the job would be considerably easier if a Republican primary challenger pulled Smith to the right and sapped significant resources.

Minnesota: Norm Coleman finds himself in a similar situation to Gordon Smith, having to maintain moderate credibility to ensure a necessary breadth of support. Minnesota will have no shortage of Democratic candidates itching to take Coleman on, be it a famous satirist, an attorney who slew Big Tobacco, a Nobel Laureate, and so on. It would help the eventual Democratic nominee if Coleman was pulled to the right and had resources sapped by a primary challenger. Enter Joe Repya, a military veteran and former advisor to Coleman who is considering entering the race. Despite Repya's ideological position to the right of the GOP, his apparent sincerity and straightforwardness would offer a damaging foil for the political opportunist Coleman and severely weaken his character before entering the general election, if he wins the primary, that is.


Colorado: Senator Wayne Allard has retired and former Rep. Bob Schaffer appears to be the presumptive Republican Senate nominee for 2008. But enough rumblings keep occuring suggesting that a bloc of the CO-GOP is not convinced Schaffer is a viable candidate against Democratic Congressman Mark Udall. As such, we could still see a CO-GOP primary, leaving the eventual Republican nominee worse for the wear.

Nebraska: There will be a Republican primary in Nebraska. The only question is whether or not Chuck Hagel will be involved. If he is, Hagel will likely still see opposition from state Attorney General Jon Bruning, whose campaign has highlighted Hagel's lack of support for the Bush administration on Iraq, and former Omaha Mayor Hal Daub. If Hagel does not run for re-election, expect those two candidates plus businessman Tony Raimondo and who knows how many others might consider a bid for an open seat. This would not be as notable a scenario if it wasn't for the fact that two prominent Nebraska Democrats were considering Senate bids: Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey and former Senator Bob Kerrey. As it seems unlikely that there would be a Democratic primary, whichever Democrat steps up will be at full strength to await a battle-bruised, resource-diminished Republican.

Idaho: If Larry Craig doesn't retire, than this paragraph is moot. However, if I had to make a wager, I'd bet on a Craig retirement. Should Craig retire, Idaho's GOP Lt. Gov. Jim Risch has been drooling to enter the Senate race and GOP Rep. Mike Simpson has at times expressed interest. While Idaho is just about as red a state as there is, the ID-Dems have put up their strongest Senate candidate in years in former Congressman Larry LaRocco. Should Craig retire and a rough Republican primary politically injury the eventual Republican nominee, Democrats would have their best opportunity in years for a Senate pickup here.

Ethics Problems

New Mexico: Pete Domenici's role in the Attorney Purge scandal has been widely reported and its impact on Domenici's approval rating has been observed. With Domenici's approval bottoming out, for the moment, around 50%, he is still awaiting the results of the Senate Ethics Committee's investigation. Should findings or political fallout result in a Domenici retirement or resignation, we could very well see a Republican primary in New Mexico to replace Domenici. Though far-right GOP Rep. Steve Pearce would be the frontrunner, a less far-right Republican might see an opening for a challenge. Meanwhile, the prospect of an open seat could entice Democratic Congressman Tom Udall or another top-tier Democrat to enter the race.

Alaska: As Ted Stevens gets more deeply embroiled in FBI investigations surrounding renovations to his home and his relationship with the corrupt VECO Corporation, coupled with Stevens advanced age, declining poll numbers, and increased interest from Democratic Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, Stevens could yet opt for retirement (if the FBI's investigation doesn't turn up something sooner that might force Stevens from the Senate), leaving Alaska wide open for a Republican Senate primary.

With the NRSC's fundraising being well eclipsed by the DSCC, and with 21 Republican incumbents to protect compared with 12 Democrats, Republican Senate resources will be spread awfully thin in 2008. The prospect of all these primaries, sapping already sparse resources, looms large over Republicans hoping to minimize losses in 2008 following a majority-losing 2006.


Blogger Dave said...

South Carolina - the candidate most rumored to be exploring a primary challenge against Graham just got busted for cocaine... So I don't think that Graham's going to need to worry about a primary challenge.

10:43 PM, June 20, 2007  
Blogger Senate2008Guru said...

Dave - I posted on soon-to-be-ex-Treasurer Ravenel this morning. While he was the most rumored establishment prospect to primary Graham, opponents to immigration reform must have other potential candidates in mind if they are being so vocal with the Payback Project. I guess we'll wait and see what they have up their sleeves, if anything.

11:07 PM, June 20, 2007  
Blogger VA Blogger said...

There is no one strong enough to put up a primary challenge in New Mexico, Alaska, Kentucky, South Carolina, Minnesota, or Oregon. And Mike Simpson already said he wouldn't run for the seat.

The only two states where a primary might pose a problem is Oregon and Minnesota, but in either state, a far-right primary would only bolster the moderate credentials of the incumbent, a la Specter '04.

Really, the only state that a Republican primary might be damaging is Nebraska, and its difficult to tell until we know what Hagel (and Johanns) are doing.

11:23 PM, June 20, 2007  
Blogger Blue South said...

None of these seem to be people able to take out the incumbents in a primary, but the question is would they be able to split the Republican base, and all of these situations show potential for a challenge that would raise hell.

And, as for Oregon and Minnesota, lets take a look at Rhode Island in 2006 instead. A far right challenger boosted the moderate credentials on the popular incumbent, and he still lost.

12:19 AM, June 21, 2007  
Blogger VA Blogger said...

I don't think any of the ones I mentioned would split the Republican base, except maybe South Carolina where it wouldn't matter.

The situations in Oregon and Minnesota are different than that of Rhode Island last year. First, Smith and Coleman are moderate Republicans, not liberal Republicans. Chafee voted with the Democrats more often than the GOP, and Landrieu and Nelson voted with the GOP more oftent han he did. Smith and Coleman haven't earned the same ire with the base. Also, Rhode Island is a much bluer state than Oregon and especially Minnesota, which is still a purple state. And Smith is a more entrenched incumbent, running for his third term rather than someone who was appointed, then won re-election because he was more liberal than his Democratic opponent.

Plus it remains to be seen if either of the potential primary challengers recieve support from outside groups, or even decide to run at all. After the cannibalistic performance in Rhode Island last year, there is a lot of pressure to not challenge vulnerable incumbents in primaries.

All in all, Nebraska is the only state in which a GOP primary is shaping up to be the least bit significant, and that's not even a sure bet if Hagel retires and Johanns runs.

8:50 AM, June 21, 2007  
Blogger Scott said...

Would someone really primary Pearce if Domenici steps down? The NM Republicans are kind of a mess (and that's being nice), Heather Wilson's got her own problems, and there isn't much of a Republican bench there. I'd think Pearce would have a pretty clear shot at the GOP nomination.

2:10 PM, June 21, 2007  
Blogger Dave said...

VA Blogger - there's going to be a primary in Nebraska. Jon Bruning is in this race no matter what. The only question is who Heineman will back - I'm sure they want Johanns in the race, but it's unclear if he'll run.

But, trust me: Bruning doesn't have very much love for Johanns. He won't step aside if Johanns jumps in. It will be a bloody primary.

2:15 PM, June 21, 2007  
Blogger VA Blogger said...

Oh, I'm not saying that Bruning would get out for Johanns. I'm saying that the anti-Hagel faction that's currently backing Bruning doesn't have the same dislike for Johanns, and Johanns would demolish Bruning.

Its unclear if he would run, I'm just saying there is potential that the GOP primary in Nebraska won't amount to anything spectacular at all.

2:33 PM, June 21, 2007  
Blogger Stephen said...

I certainly understand the point that a primary challenge from a wing of a party can make the candidate seem moderate for the general election, but as a person who lives in PA, I am not sure that is totally what happened in 2004. Specter did have at least look like he was moving to the right by having Bush and Santorum campaign. In the general election though, Hoeffel people helped get signatures for a conservative 3rd party candidate who was then invited to the debates, so the theme became Hoeffel on the left and What'sHisName on the right with Specter in the middle. That being said, as I am not nearly as up on this type of thing as most of you, I also agree that a primary from the far right in this case can make the incumbent seem middle by comparison

5:13 PM, June 21, 2007  
Blogger VA Blogger said...

Essentially, there's no way of saying exactly what will happen. It could be good, it could be bad. It could be a challenger that the candidate has to pay attention to, it could be a challenger that the incumbent simply ignores and still wins with 80%+ of the vote in the primary. We can quote precedent until we're blue in the face to prove one thing or another, but that doesn't guarantee anything will happen.

5:44 PM, June 21, 2007  
Blogger blogger said...

Cross posted at-


2:15 PM, June 22, 2007  

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