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May Primary Showdowns To Test Tea Party's Relevance

Republican establishment candidates appear to have the edge in looming primary contests.
A woman signs a "Why are you a Conservative" message board at the Conservative Political Action conference (CPAC) in Washington February 10, 2011.
A woman signs a "Why are you a Conservative" message board at the Conservative Political Action conference (CPAC) in Washington February 10, 2011.KEVIN LAMARQUE / Reuters

May’s test for the Tea Party

More than a month has passed without a 2014 Senate primary race, but that is about to change. Two weeks from today, the first of several competitive GOP primaries in May will take place. And if there’s a common theme in several of these contests, it’s that the Republican establishment candidates appear to have the edge -- at least right now -- which presents a test for the Tea Party. In North Carolina (May 6), the Chamber of Commerce-backed Thom Tillis has the advantage, although a potential runoff (if no one gets more than 40% of the vote) could make things much more interesting for the North Carolina state House speaker. In Kentucky (May 20), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell looks to be solid shape against Tea Party challenger Matt Bevin (don’t miss the new McConnell and Bevin TV ads). In Georgia (also May 20), the top-two candidates are the establishment-backed David Perdue and GOP Rep. Jack Kingston; by contrast, the most conservative Republicans (Reps. Paul Broun and Phil Gingrey) are trailing the field. And in Oregon (also May 20), the AP is calling abortion-rights supporter Monica Wehby as the biggest threat to incumbent Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR).

The establishment strikes back?

This is perhaps why so many outside conservative groups are focused so heavily in backing Ben Sasse against Shane Osborn in Nebraska’s GOP Senate primary (on May 13). It also raises the stakes in the competitive House GOP primary in Idaho featuring incumbent Rep Mike Simpson vs. challenger Bryan Smith (May 20). And don’t forget the Texas runoff between incumbent Rep. Ralph Hall and challenger John Ratcliffe (May 27), where Hall is probably the underdog to hold onto his job. We maintain that the Tea Party still remains a powerful force in Republican politics -- remember that 41% of GOP voters voted against Sen. John Cornyn in March’s Texas primary. And there are many competitive primaries to watch in the months ahead (in Kansas, Mississippi, and South Carolina). But right now, the establishment has been fighting back and it appears to have the early edge in many of May’s contests. “They ignored them in 2010,” the Cook Political Report’s Jennifer Duffy says of the establishment against the Tea Party. “In 2012, they tried to be one of them. And in 2014, they’re just fighting back.”

Democrats trying to influence these GOP primaries

Of course, one other thing is happening in these GOP primaries: Democrats are trying to influence their outcome. In North Carolina, Sen. Kay Hagan’s (D) campaign is up with this VERY interesting radio ad: “Here’s Republican Senate candidate Thom Tillis describing Obamacare: ‘It’s a great idea.’ That’s right, Thom Tillis called Obamacare a great idea.” Geez, you think the Hagan camp is suggesting to North Carolina GOP voters that Tillis is an Obamacare-loving RINO? And while Democrats have done nothing overtly in Georgia, there’s no doubt they’d love for either Broun or Gingrey to make the runoff. But for every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction: We’ve been told that establishment Republicans will do everything they can to aid a Thom Tillis or a Jack Kingston in a runoff -- if they’re facing a Tea Party candidate.

Watching the Dem primary in Pennsylvania

Meanwhile, the biggest Democratic primary in May is the Pennsylvania gubernatorial contest (May 20) for the right to take on vulnerable Gov. Tom Corbett (R) in November. The relatively new front-runner in that race is businessman Tom Wolf, who shot up in the polls due to his early TV ad onslaught. Also running: Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D-PA) and state Treasurer Rob McCord.

Here’s your primary calendar for May

May 6: IN, NC, OH primaries

May 13: NE, WV primaries

May 20: AR, GA, ID, KY, OR, PA primaries

May 27: Texas run-off

Obama heads to Asia

President Obama departs on his big trip to Asia today -- but first, he visits Oso, WA to inspect the devastation of the recent mudslide there, and he’ll make remarks at 6:50 pm ET. As for the Asia trip… As we wrote yesterday, if there’s something that links the crisis in Ukraine with Asia, it’s the nervousness about borders being redrawn. If Russia is able to redraw Ukraine’s map, that is making China’s neighbors very, very skittish.

Where Democrats are fighting back on health care

On Monday, we wrote that Democrats running in 2014 face this choice: Do they campaign aggressively on health care, or do they try to ignore it? But as the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent notes, there ARE Democrats fighting back on the issue. Just consider this Democratic Super PAC TV ad supporting Mark Begich in Alaska that features a breast cancer survivor who says, “I was lucky, I beat cancer. But the insurance companies still denied me health insurance just because of a pre-existing condition. I now have health insurance again because of Mark Begich.” And in Michigan, Democrat Gary Peters is hitting Republican Terri Lynn Land on Medicaid expansion.

Elizabeth Warren says she’s not running in 2016 (again)

In an interview with ABC yesterday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) -- who’s promoting her new book -- again knocked down any speculation that she might run for president in 2016. “I’m not running for president,” she said. Asked if Hillary Clinton would make a good president, Warren added, “I think Hillary Clinton is terrific… We gotta stay focused on these issues right now.” Now that’s not a Sherman-esque statement (it’s technically true she’s “not running for president” right now). But if Hillary runs, we’re pretty confident Warren isn’t going to challenge her. After all, Warren signed her name on a letter urging Hillary to run in 2016.

The RGA’s brutal ad in South Carolina

Finally, don’t miss this brutal TV ad the Republican Governors Association is running against in Vincent Shaheen (D) in South Carolina (hat tip: Political Wire). Two things here. One, it’s another example of how being a criminal defense attorney is increasingly a problem for aspiring politicians (opponents are tying you to the actions of your clients). And two, it’s another indication that Republicans must think that Gov. Nikki Haley (R) isn’t a slam dunk in November.

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