Rick Scott
Wilfredo Lee  /  AP
Surrounded by family members, Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott, center, gestures as he speaks with supporters Tuesday in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 8/26/2010 4:45:03 AM ET 2010-08-26T08:45:03

A Republican civil war is raging, with righter-than-thou conservatives dominating more and more primaries in a fight for the party's soul. And the Democrats hope to benefit.

The latest examples of conservative insurgents' clout came Tuesday at opposite ends of the country.

In Florida, political newcomer Rick Scott beat longtime congressman and state Attorney General Bill McCollum for the GOP gubernatorial nomination. And in Alaska, tea party activists and Sarah Palin pushed Sen. Lisa Murkowski to the brink of defeat, depending on absentee ballot counts in her race against outsider Joe Miller.

Such results are the fruit of attempts to mobilize the movement as a campaigning force. FreedomWorks, a Washington advocacy group which is working to build the tea party movement, has been holding "boot camp" events across the country to train supporters in how to win votes for some 18 months, The New York Times reported.

"This movement, if we can turn out hundreds or thousands to the streets to protest and wave signs and yell and make an impact on public policy debate, then we can make a lot of difference," Brendan Steinhauser, FreedomWorks’s chief organizer for tea party groups, told members at one meeting in Washington this month, according to the Times.

"But if those same people go and walk neighborhoods and do all the things we’re talking about, put up the door-hangers in the final 72 hours and make the phone calls, we may crush some of these guys," he added.

Desperate Democrats
The GOP is likely to survive its bitter intraparty battles in such states as Alaska and Utah, even if voters oust veteran senators in both.

But tea party-backed candidates might be a godsend to desperate Democrats elsewhere — in Nevada, Florida and perhaps Kentucky, where the Democrats portray GOP nominees as too extreme for their states.

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If Murkowski joins Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, as a victim of party activists who demand ideological purity, other Republicans are still likely to win in November, though Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., would have to deal with more maverick members who are loathe to compromise.

And the conservative insurgency is hardly all-powerful, as Sen. John McCain proved by easily winning renomination in Arizona despite a challenge from the right by J.D. Hayworth.

The Republican Party's chief danger lies in battleground states such as Florida and Nevada, where great opportunities might slip away.

President Barack Obama and his Democrats see a silver lining amid political troubles driven by high unemployment and a stubbornly slow economic recovery.

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The White House has tried to link the Republican Party with the fledgling conservative-libertarian tea party coalition — and demonize the combination as too extreme for the country.

That's "the Republican tea party" that's "offering more of the past but on steroids" and is "out of step with where the American people are," Vice President Joe Biden told the party's rank and file last week.

Nevada Republicans' nomination of tea party favorite Sharron Angle may save Sen. Harry Reid, the Democratic leader.

His popularity has fallen sharply among state voters, but Democrats say Angle's comments are scaring voters away from her and back toward him.

In Florida, the conventional wisdom was that McCollum, who had won election statewide, would be a stronger candidate than Scott against Democrat Alex Sink in the governor's race.

Democrats are certain to assail at least one aspect of Scott's private-sector history: the $1.7 billion that Columbia/HCA hospital corporation paid to settle Medicare fraud charges when he was chief executive officer.

In the Republican primary, Scott spent $39 million of his own money to promote his campaign and beat back such attacks.

In a sign of the Democratic Party's own relative calm this year, Florida's other insider-vs-outsider contest turned out much differently. Democratic Rep. Kendrick Meek defeated millionaire newcomer Jeff Greene for the party's Senate nomination.

Rookie mistakes
Even if GOP nominees make some rookie mistakes, general election voters might embrace them, said Republican strategist John Feehery.

"This is a 'big change' election," Feehery said. "If you are defending the establishment, you are in big trouble this time around."

Still, tea party activism could cause worries for Republicans in Florida's Senate race. Conservative Marco Rubio essentially chased Gov. Charlie Crist, then a Republican, out of the party.

But a Meek-Rubio split of the vote on Nov. 2 could allow Crist to win the Senate seat as an independent, and he might caucus with Democrats in Washington.

In several other states, the likely impact of anti-establishment fervor and tea party activism is unclear.

Kentucky Senate nominee Rand Paul defied the GOP establishment and gave Democrats some ammunition with his strongly libertarian stands. But many expect him to defeat Democrat Jack Conway in November.

The dynamic is similar in Colorado. Senate nominee Ken Buck beat an establishment favorite in the Republican primary. And some polls show him ahead of Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet.

In Connecticut, the Senate race appears tight between millionaire Republican newcomer Linda McMahon and Democrat Richard Blumenthal, the state's longtime attorney general.

A few more Republican intraparty battles will play out in primaries on Sept. 14.

Plea to soften attacks
In New Hampshire, party elders have urged Senate rivals Bill Binnie and Kelly Ayotte to soften their attacks on each other.

A new ad by Binnie, a businessman, says Ayotte is an insider whose front-runner campaign is funded by lobbyists. Ayotte, a former attorney general, says Binnie also takes campaign cash from lobbyists, and is a liberal to boot.

The survivor will face Democratic Rep. Paul Hodes on Nov. 2.

White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer said Republicans are hurting their chances this fall "by nominating candidates well outside the mainstream."

But Washington-based Republican adviser Kevin Madden sees some good news in his party's intraparty clashes. Conservative voters are energized, he said, and they will remain so through November, when many Democrats are likely to be dispirited.

Polls show non-establishment candidates such as Angle, Paul and McMahon either ahead or in striking distance, Madden said.

More importantly, he said, voters this fall won't care so much about libertarian-leaning comments about Social Security or other issues.

This election "is about one big thing," Madden said. "It's about the economy."

And that issue will play into the hands of GOP candidates, he said, whether they are establishment figures or not.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: Channeling voter anger key to midterm success?

  1. Closed captioning of: Channeling voter anger key to midterm success?

    >> carl. now to another passing subject, that is politics. tuesday's republican senate primary in alaska is still too close to call. but this morning it looks like the candidate supported by sarah palin may have pulled off a big upset. we've got nbc's chief white house correspondent and political director chuck todd now joining us with the latest on this. chuck, good morning.

    >> good morning, ann. well, washington is still shell-shocked from the latest political upset. four time zones away, and while alaska 's senator his is murkowski is still clinging to the hope of an eleventh hour victory by recount the message for both parties is clear, no one is safe from the wrath of voters in 2010 .

    >> it ain't over until it's over. and there is much, much yet to be counted.

    >> reporter: senator murkowski , still confident and defiant wednesday, as she waited for the last several thousand votes to be counted in her hotly contested race with tea party backed challenger joe miller , who holds a slim lead. miller's candidacy was put on the political map thanks to a stamp of approval from sarah palin , who has a history of tension with murkowski 's family. he ran on what is now becoming a familiar message of anti- washington anger.

    >> guess what? the federal government is broken. we need to get back into control here in this state. that's a message that carries to both parties.

    >> reporter: and that message included attacks on murkowski 's record. most notably a message by palin.

    >> murkowski has voted with the democrats more than any republican up for reelection this year.

    >> reporter: murkowski ran on her record of eight years in the senate.

    >> lisa murkowski , making our voice heard in washington , fighting for alaska .

    >> reporter: a strategy that proved risky in the face of widespread anger at congress and the president. in arizona, the famously maverick republican john mccain was just as threatened as murkowski . but unlike her, he won by going negative early and aggressive.

    >> pork barrel spender, lobbyist, huckster.

    >> i'm john mccain and i approve this message.

    >> reporter: channeling voter anger is working down the ballot, as well.

    >> barack obama is the worst president in history.

    >> reporter: ben quail, son of former vice president dan quail came out ugly in a race in phoenix using the president as a punching bad.

    >> a short year and a half he has fundamentally changed our country for the worst.

    >> reporter: as for murkowski , she has no regrets on receiving advice she received to go more negative.

    >> it was good, it was positive, it was upbeat. there's been a suggestion in order to win in politics you've got to run a negative campaign . i don'tly alaskans want that. i don't think americans want that. we're faced with a campaign that we ran.

    >> reporter: of course, the alaska campaign was a bit of a grudge match between the murkowskis and the palins. murkowski told the daily beast that palin's facebook postings supporting joe miller went too far. quote, she did put a little dig in there about my family, she said, and all of a sudden became a little more personal. palin, by the way, was tweeting away this week, gloating a bit and she wrote, keeping fingers crossed, prayers upward but joe miller just tweeted, what's the moose hunting like in the beltway? by the way, ann, we're not going to know until after labor day who actually won this alaska republican primary .

    >> my goodness. well thanks for keeping us up to date on that. and also, chuck, you know, meantime the effort to legalize gay marriage in this country got a high profile republican endorser, isn't that right?

    >> it did. ken mehlman the former chairman of the republican national committee from 2005 to 2007 , the man who guided the re-election for president george w. bush , went public and said that he was gay, and part of it is that he is going to become a more of a public face, public supporter for the efforts, particularly the efforts to rounding the -- the groups that are trying to get that proposition 8 out in california overturned. which, of course, now is a supreme court thing. he is going to headline some fund-raisers for that effort in the next few weeks.

    >> pretty brave move on his part. all right, chuck todd , thanks so much this morning.

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