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GOP can count ways to Senate majority

Monday - 12/30/2013, 5:04pm  ET

FILE – In this Feb. 6, 2013, file photo Rep. Paul Broun, R-Georgia, announces his plans to run for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Saxby Chambliss in 2014, in Atlanta. Republicans see the 2014 midterm elections as a chance to capitalize on voter frustration with the problem-plagued health care overhaul, but the GOP first must settle a slate of Senate primaries where conservatives are arguing over the best way to oppose President Barack Obama’s signature law. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)

DONNA CASSATA
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Republicans count enough competitive races to challenge Democrats for control of the Senate in the 2014 elections, if only they can figure out what to do with the tea party.

Crowded primaries in states such as Georgia, Iowa and North Carolina, where tea partyers and social conservatives are fighting for the nomination and pushing candidates farther right, worry many Republicans, especially after they saw their legitimate shots at a Senate majority slip away in 2010 and 2012.

Republicans need a net gain of six seats to capture control from Democrats, who effectively hold a 55-45 advantage now. But Democrats will be defending 21 of 35 seats to be decided in November, and President Barack Obama is looking like a major drag for them. Midterm elections are often tough for a president's party in any event.

"History is with us, geography is with us and the president's signature legislative achievement is the most unpopular" law of his tenure, Rob Collins, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said of Obama and his health care overhaul.

Republicans inside and outside the Senate speak confidently about snatching open seats in West Virginia and South Dakota. They like their chances against Democratic incumbents in Republican-leaning Arkansas, Louisiana and Alaska and remain upbeat about Montana even if Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock names Lt. Gov. John Walsh to succeed Sen. Max Baucus, Obama's choice for U.S. ambassador to China.

The looming question is whether Republicans undercut their solid shot with tea party-style candidates who fizzled out in Delaware, Colorado and Nevada in 2010 and Indiana and Missouri in 2012.

Georgia is keeping some Republicans awake at night. Eight candidates, including three House members, are pursuing the open seat of retiring two-term Sen. Saxby Chambliss in a state that dramatically went Republican in 1994 and rarely has looked back. Georgia hasn't elected a non-incumbent Democrat since 1998.

A loss of the GOP seat would complicate any Republican math for a majority.

The top Democratic hopeful is Michelle Nunn, CEO of the volunteer organization Points of Light and daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn. The younger Nunn's diligence gets high marks from Democrats and Republicans. She has raised more than $1.7 million and campaigned with a purpose.

While more attention has focused on Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, who is challenging Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in the marquee race of the cycle, Republicans say Nunn is the real deal.

She stands as a moderate Democrat who could appeal to Georgia's electorate and a Washington outsider in a year when congressional approval is in single digits.

Republicans are nervous about Rep. Paul Broun, who has said evolution and the Big Bang theory are "lies straight from the pit of Hell." Although the four-term Georgia congressman has avoided incendiary comments in his latest campaign, several Republicans privately fret about him winning the nomination.

Looking to seize the edge in the free-for-all primary, Broun recently pounded rival Rep. Jack Kingston, considered more moderate, after Kingston suggested that Obama's health care law could be fixed. Kingston quickly backtracked on an issue that resonates with core GOP voters, but then came under criticism for saying poor children could pay a small fee or work cleaning up to receive school-subsidized lunches.

"'Why don't you, you know, have the kids pay a dime, pay a nickel to instill in them that there is, in fact, no such thing as a free lunch -- or maybe sweep the floor in the cafeteria,'" he said at a Jackson County event.

Guy Cecil, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, argued that the presence of tea partyers in primaries is forcing all Republican candidates to race to the right. The result is nominees unacceptable in the general election, he said.

"Primary electorates are so small it essentially encourages the Akin-ization of the entire Republican primary," Cecil said.

His reference was to Missouri 2012. Republicans were certain they could defeat Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., but their nominee, Rep. Todd Akin, flamed out after saying women's bodies can avoid pregnancy in cases of "legitimate rape." McCaskill won re-election by 16 percentage points.

Georgia rules set the primary for May 20, but if no candidate gets 50 percent, a runoff occurs July 22.

Several Republicans insist that establishment candidates will eventually prevail and the internal fights won't matter as Democrats struggle with the most contentious issue of the year -- Obama's health care law -- and the political damage from its many problems.

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