For every new rising Republican star in Senate races around the nation — Marco Rubio in Florida, Rand Paul in Kentucky, Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire — the GOP is also running some familiar Washington establishment figures like Rep. Roy Blunt in Missouri, former corporate lobbyist and ex-senator Dan Coats in Indiana, and former House member and Bush administration trade negotiator Rob Portman in Ohio.
In this year of anti-establishment, anti-Washington, anti-big government fervor, these veteran candidates could very well be a "buzz kill" for Republicans in their attempt to cut into the Democratic majority in the Senate.
Blunt played a major role in passing the 2008 Wall Street bailout; Coats' former lobbying clients like Bank of America could present problems; and Portman was George W. Bush's top trade representative and voted for NAFTA when in Congress — hardly a popular position in manufacturing-heavy Ohio.
But the individual dynamics in each race could offset Democrats' argument that Blunt, Coats and Portman are the wrong candidates for this year's electorate.
'Slippery slope to socialism'
Take Blunt in Missouri, for example. He’s running against Democrat Robin Carnahan, Missouri’s Secretary of State.
No Republican had a more important role two years ago in negotiating with Democratic leaders over the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) and shepherding it into law than Blunt, who was then the House Minority Whip.
Conservatives see TARP as the Wall Street bailout, the ultimate symbol of a domineering government taking an unprecedented role in managing the economy.
House Republicans helped defeat TARP on the first vote on Sept. 29, 2008, with Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, calling it a "step down the slippery slope to socialism."
Thanks to vote whipping by Blunt and others, TARP passed a few days later, with 26 Republicans switching their votes from ‘no’ to ‘yes.’
Now Carnahan is trying to apply some TARP tar to her opponent, calling him “Bailout Blunt.”
“Robin would have voted against the $700 billion Wall Street bailout orchestrated by Congressman Blunt because it was a blank check with no accountability and Missouri families got stuck with the bill,” said Carnahan campaign spokesman Linden Zakula.
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In 2008, Blunt argued, as did then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Democratic House leaders, that TARP was an emergency measure needed to avert catastrophe.
“This is not about Wall Street; it's about Main Street,” Blunt declared on the House floor.
Blunt stressed that if people could see what TARP was they’d support it. “Unfortunately we got started off talking about this in a terrible way, when you're talking bailout, illiquid assets, Wall Street, and people get focused on that,” he said after the initial TARP defeat. “We didn't have time to turn this around to what the final product really was — guarantees for taxpayers, a workout.”
Before facing Carnahan in November, Blunt must fend off conservative Republican state Sen. Chuck Purgason in the Aug. 3 primary.
Purgason will struggle to get heard. (He’s raised only about $20,000, while Blunt has nearly $6 million in campaign funds.) But he is happy to be another critic on the TARP issue. "All they did was transfer the risk from the bankers to the taxpayers,” Purgason told msnbc.com Wednesday. “I don’t know how you defend that as a conservative Republican.”
“I don’t think Sen. Purgason poses a serious threat,” said Missouri State University political science professor George Connor. “The general election will be trickier.”
“In this season of Alice in Wonderland politics, you have a Democrat (Carnahan) criticizing a Republican for not being fiscally conservative,” Connor said. “With the Republicans aggressively painting her into a picture with Pelosi and Obama, it’s going to be hard for her to make her case; guilt by association. It does not help that her brother, Congressman Russ Carnahan, voted for the bailout.”
Analyst Jennifer Duffy at the non-partisan Cook Political Report said the “outsider v. insider” template doesn’t neatly apply in Missouri.
Carnahan’s father was governor of Missouri, her mother served for two years as senator, her brother Russ has served in the House since 2005, and her grandfather Albert Carnahan was a House member in the 1950s.
Revisiting the Bush years
In Ohio, Portman, a Republican with plenty of Washington experience on his resume, will be running against incumbent Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher.
Ohio is the Senate race where Democrats are most clearly evoking George W. Bush, playing up Portman's Bush administration service.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee portrays Portman as "George W. Bush’s economic czar" who sent "millions of jobs overseas. The Portman-Bush economic policies resulted in an economic crisis not seen since the Great Depression …”
Despite the largest one-month increase in payroll employment of any state in April, Ohio still has an unemployment rate of nearly 11 percent.
Duffy said Portman’s former role as Bush’s trade negotiator will likely be more of a liability than his service as his budget director. He championed the 2005 Central American Free Trade Agreement which unions opposed as potential job killer.
In the House, Portman voted for the North American Free Trade Agreement and for the 2000 trade accord with China that has helped pave the way to increased imports from China.
But his campaign says as trade representative, Portman launched the first legal case against Beijing before the World Trade Organization to contest China's discrimination against U.S.-made auto parts.
Will Hoosiers support an ex-lobbyist?
Meanwhile in Indiana, where the retirement of Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh created an open seat, Democrats portray Coats, a lobbyist from 2005 to early this year, as a D.C. insider with the wrong credentials at a time when big corporations and lobbyists have a bad aura.
The Senate lobbying disclosure database, based on reports filed by Coats’ former firms, Verner Liipfert and King & Spalding, lists him as having represented Bank of America, Google, the pharmaceutical industry trade association, and defense giant Lockheed Martin, among other clients.
But Coats campaign spokesman Pete Seat said the lobbying disclosure forms are not necessarily accurate and that firms sometimes list an entire roster of lobbyists “out of an abundance of caution” even if one of them did no work for a particular client.
“We’re in the process of putting together a complete and accurate list of who Dan did lobby for,” he said.
Seat said Coats did no lobbying for Goldman Sachs or for Bank of America — two names that pop up in a query of the Senate lobbying database.
And the election won’t be a referendum on Coats’s lobbying on but on Democrat Rep. Brad Ellsworth’s votes, Seat contended. “Only one person in this race voted for the bailout, the stimulus and the health care bill — and that’s the incumbent Brad Ellsworth.”
“Voters may not like lobbyists, but do they like them less than the guy who voted for the health care bill?” asked Duffy.
Coats did not exactly storm his way to the nomination, winning it with 39 percent of the vote in a five-person contest, but he retains some valuable assets — including his long relationship with Indiana voters. Coats won five House races and two Senate races from 1980 to 1992.
“Name recognition is job one for candidates, and Dan Coats definitely has that in Indiana,” said political scientist Robert Dion at the University of Evansville. “By definition, Dan Coats knows how to run for statewide office in Indiana and win.”
And despite a competitive primary, November's contest will be between Republicans and Democats. Indiana Tea Party activist Tom Grimes, who preferred another candidate in the primary, said, “We’re ticked at the people from Washington who sent Coats here” to run for the seat. But while Coats wasn’t the Tea Party activists’ first choice, he’ll suffice.
“The only purpose we have is to turn every ‘D’ into an ‘R,’” said Grimes.
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