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GOP Facing Strong Tea Party Challenge in September Primaries

By John Mercurio   |   Monday, 06 Sep 2010 05:14 PM

The primary election season, dominated by the fierce battle between establishment Republicans and insurgent conservatives, is entering its final leg with another rollicking round of intraparty squabbles this month.

Although tea party-backed candidates have largely succeeded in toppling rivals endorsed by Beltway insiders so far, the establishment is well poised this month to stage a late-breaking comeback.

Polls suggest that establishment-backed Republicans are expected to win key Senate primaries in New Hampshire, Wisconsin, and Delaware, as well as the contest for New York governor. Still, the candidates are taking nothing for granted, with attorney Joe Miller’s shocking upset of Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the GOP primary in Alaska fresh in their minds.

“The Republican establishment is keeping its fingers crossed because just about everyone agrees that they’ve got the stronger set of candidates,” said Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia. “But they’ve had a lot of failures this year. And they can’t afford many more, or they’re going to blow a tremendous opportunity.”

In New Hampshire, polls show that Republican Kelly Ayotte, a former state attorney general, continues to hold a wide lead over two GOP primary challengers, millionaire businessmen Bill Binnie and Ovide Lamontagne. As Ayotte’s rivals frequently remind voters, the National Senatorial Campaign Committee and other national GOP leaders recruited her to run.

Hoping to avoid the same mistakes Murkowski made, however, Ayotte recently has gone on the offensive against Binnie, her biggest threat. The Ayotte campaign launched a new ad that cites newspaper clips calling Binnie an “attack dog” and accuses him of slinging false criticisms of Ayotte.

“Binnie attacks to hide liberal positions,” proclaims the ad, which shows a clip of Binnie saying he opposes the Arizona immigration law. It then criticizes his opinions on amnesty and a value-added tax.

The New Hampshire race has become increasingly nasty.

"Shame on you," Binnie said to Ayotte at a recent debate, responding to her claims that his business had shipped jobs overseas.

“After you spent $1 million to run five negative ads against me,” she responded, “shame on you."

Although Ayotte’s opponents have questioned her credentials as a “true conservative,” those attacks may fall short in a state where even the GOP base is relatively moderate. Polls show that Ayotte alone leads the likely Democratic nominee, Rep. Paul Hodes, in a November matchup.

Still, while Ayotte is running strong, Sabato cautions against predicting her victory. “They’re one of the least predictable electorates,” he said of the state’s GOP.

In Wisconsin, Republican Ron Johnson, a plastics manufacturer and millionaire businessman, is fending off last-minute attacks from conservatives, including “Joe the Plumber,” who support his opponent in the Senate primary, businessman Dave Westlake.

But Johnson, who won the state GOP’s official support at a convention in May, has worked hard to win over tea party supporters.

So far, his efforts appear to have paid off, as many local tea party activists have declined to wade into the GOP dispute. “We’ve definitely got our options open. That’s the problem, we’re torn,” Jim Kiser, who heads the Fond du Lac tea party group, told Politico. “We’re going to let it play out.”

Republican insiders are backing Johnson partly because he can afford to self-finance a fall campaign against Democratic incumbent Sen. Russ Feingold. Johnson leads Feingold narrowly, polls show.

In Delaware, Republicans are favored in the race for Vice President Biden’s old Senate seat — but only if they nominate Mike Castle, a longtime congressman and former governor. Recent polls show Castle, one of the dwindling number of moderate Republicans left in Congress, leads conservative challenger Christine O’Donnell, a marketing consultant. But the race is tightening and, buoyed by success elsewhere, tea party activists are starting to organize on O’Donnell’s behalf.

O'Donnell has attracted some national attention, making the rounds at grass-roots events such as AFP’s Right Online and drawing support from top conservatives such as Michelle Malkin, Mark Levin, and Erick Erickson. But O'Donnell's support is hardly unanimous on the right. Other conservatives are worried that an O'Donnell upset would jeopardize a sure win for the GOP in traditionally moderate Delaware.

Hoping to learn from Murkowski’s mistakes, Castle is ignoring polls showing him with a double-digit lead and is attacking O’Donnell. He has bought about $180,000 worth of airtime from Aug. 31 to Sept. 6. Castle is preparing for an onslaught of ads from the Tea Party Express, which endorsed O’Donnell on Aug. 30 and has bought more than $250,000 in ads supporting her campaign.

The Delaware GOP, which supports Castle, has been releasing statements against O’Donnell and recently launched a new website to attack her.

Recent polls have shown Democrat Chris Coons, the New Castle County executive, losing to Castle but beating O’Donnell by 7 to 10 points.

“The Republican leadership is scared to death that Castle is going to lose, which would basically force them to sacrifice a Senate seat,” Sabato said. “There’s no way that O’Donnell can win.”

In New York, former Republican Rep. Rick Lazio, whose most recent appearance on a ballot was in 2000, when he lost badly to Hillary Rodham Clinton, leads wealthy businessman Carl Paladino in the GOP race for governor, according to a recent poll. But Lazio, seen by members of his own party as a weak candidate, has struggled to raise money and has failed to ignite the passion of voters.

Lazio and Paladino have courted tea party voters; Lazio refers to himself as a "Contract With America congressman" (he was two years ahead of the curve, having been elected in 1992), and he skipped a recent debate with Paladino to attend a tea party forum. But polls show Paladino enjoys stronger backing from the grass-roots movement.

Regardless, neither Republican is expected to fare well in November against the Democratic nominee, state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo.

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The primary election season, dominated by the fierce battle between establishment Republicans and insurgent conservatives, is entering its final leg with another rollicking round of intraparty squabbles this month. Although tea party-backed candidates have largely...

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