Washington In Kentucky, the Republican Senate candidate stumbles over a question on racial segregation. In Connecticut, the party’s hopes rest on an executive who banked millions on female wrestlers in skimpy outfits. In Nevada, one contender wants to phase out Social Security and another suggests trading chickens for medical care.
Welcome to the 2010 battle for the Senate.
It’s midway through President Barack Obama’s term, and high unemployment, an outbreak of anti-incumbent fever and political history are pointing to strong Republican gains in the fall. Yet to a degree unimaginable a few months ago, the party’s fate is tied to conservatives with tea party support, scant or no political experience, and views or backgrounds that are largely unknown to statewide electorates.
“A tsunami of conservatism is coming in waves across our country,” says Sharron Angle, a tea party-endorsed candidate in Nevada running for the nomination to oppose Democrat Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader. “My message is, this is what people want.”
Democrats claim otherwise.
“The mainstream in their party is being expelled by the extreme,” says Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, who heads the Democratic campaign committee. “That trend is hurting the Republicans.”
Their early campaign plans upended by Rand Paul in Kentucky, Linda McMahon in Connecticut and Marco Rubio in Florida, even Republican leaders occasionally acknowledge worries about a political wave they cannot control.
“New candidates make mistakes,” says Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, who leads the GOP campaign effort. He adds their emergence is a sign of “considerable political unrest. ... I like our chances.” The party also has tea party-infused primaries ahead in New Hampshire, Colorado, California and Arizona.
Menendez doesn’t dispute that his party is in line to lose ground. “The question is how much of a robust majority” will remain after the elections, he says.
Republicans don’t lack for targets.
Obama’s former seat in Illinois, Vice President Joe Biden’s in Delaware and the one Interior Secretary Ken Salazar gave up in Colorado are competitive.
Officials in both parties say Sen. Byron Dorgan’s retirement in North Dakota gives Republicans their best opportunity for a gain. Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh’s decision to leave Congress gives them another strong chance. Arkansas Republican Rep. John Boozman holds a lead in the polls, while endangered Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln and her labor-backed challenger, Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, scrap toward a June 8 primary runoff.
Another top GOP target is Pennsylvania, where tea party-backed Rep. Pat Toomey is running against Rep. Joe Sestak. Sestak defeated Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter in a primary after first saying the White House offered him a job if he would drop out — a controversy the administration tried to put to rest on Friday.
On the West Coast, Republicans were cheered last week when Dino Rossi announced he would run against Washington Sen. Patty Murray. Democrats are sufficiently concerned about veteran Sen. Barbara Boxer for Obama to fly three times to California to raise funds for her.
But before they can begin counting Democratic-held seats, Republicans must defend several of their own — races where the impact of tea party activists has been strongest so far.
Gov. Charlie Crist’s unraveling and Rubio’s ascension in Florida was the first sign of turmoil for the establishment. Once an odds-on favorite to move to the Senate, Crist now is a former Republican and an independent in an unpredictable three-way race with Rubio and Democratic Rep. Kendrick Meek.