How Senate Republicans could get tripped up again in 2014 (and how they are trying not to)

November 27, 2012

Just three weeks after suffering debilitating losses across the map, the 2014 election cycle is quickly beginning to resemble the previous two for Senate Republicans, with the possibility of new intra-party spats already emerging. 


Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) was barraged by conservative criticism when she announced her Senate campaign on Monday. (Chip Ellis/AP)

When Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) announced her 2014 Senate bid Monday, it was a cause for both Republican celebration and angst. For some, Capito's decision was an early recruiting coup that gave her party a real pickup shot in a state that hasn't been represented by a Republican senator since the 1950s.

Other Republicans were less impressed by the congresswoman's decision. The anti-tax Club for Growth wrote her off as a big-government advocate while the Senate Conservatives Fund PAC, which was started by South Carolina GOP Sen. Jim DeMint but is now independent of him, called her spending record "too liberal." As both groups quickly slammed Capito, though, neither could immediately point to an obvious alternative.

The conservative hostility toward Capito comes as speculation that Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) could face a primary continues to swirl and soon after Club President Chris Chocola identified Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) as a potential target for conservatives.

Welcome to the 2014 cycle, where most of the early rumblings in the Senate landscape have involved the prospect of Republican infighting. And, after back-to-back cycles in which flawed nominees in Nevada, Missouri, Colorado, Indiana and Delaware cost Republicans dearly, national strategists are already working to prevent history from repeating itself.

The question is how.

Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) will be the next chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee and will be faced with the task of recruiting better candidates and cultivating a better relationship with conservative groups. 

"Unless the party is planning to get behind principled, grassroots conservatives, they're going to continue to run into a fierce headwind," said SCF Executive Director Matt Hoskins.

One of Moran's vice chairs will be Sen.-elect Ted Cruz of Texas, the shining star of the conservative grassroots this cycle who overcame the odds to defeat heavily favored Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (R) in a GOP primary/runoff. Part of Cruz's role at the committee, according to a Republican familiar with NRSC strategy, will be to act as a go-between with conservative groups like the Club and SCF, both of which backed his candidacy this year.

The committee's hope is that opening up a dialogue with conservative activists and organizations to identify mutually acceptable candidates will spare the GOP the pains it has suffered.

"The goal is to limit these disagreements and at least know where each other stands on the front end and collaborate," the Republican said.

It's a tall task that may be easier said than done. For one thing, the NRSC is an incumbent protection committee, and with speculation ramping up that Graham and Chambliss could get primaried, the committee could find itself at odds with activists. But Republicans are hopeful Cruz's presence will help smooth things out. 

"We welcome the help of anyone who wants to advance the pro-growth cause," said Club spokesman Barney Keller. "We are excited that Senator-elect Ted Cruz is poised to play a leadership role within the Republican Party and are confident he is committed to passing policies that will grow our economy."

If there are GOP primary campaigns in which a lack of consensus produces competing candidates backed by different wings of the party, the result could be more expensive and bloody primaries akin to Indiana this cycle, where Richard Mourdock's defeat of Sen. Richard Lugar breathed new life into Democrats' hopes, and ultimately helped hand them an unlikely pickup.

But for Republicans, the problem extends beyond primaries pitting candidates backed by the money from conservative groups against those who activists label as establishmentarians. Neither SCF nor the Club backed Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.), whose comments about "legitimate rape" rarely leading to pregnancy decimated the GOP's chances against vulnerable Sen. Claire McCaskill (D). Reps. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.) and Rick Berg (R-N.D.) were not the products of conservative revolts, and didn't face competitive primaries, but each lost this year in states Mitt Romney won.

Senate Republicans are looking at a very favorable map in 2014. Whether or not they can capitalize on it will depend on how well they address the flaws that have plagued them during the past four years. So far at least, it doesn't look like those headaches are gone.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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Aaron Blake · November 27, 2012