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 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.
Democrats hold a 59-41 advantage in the current Senate, and Republicans must gain 10 seats to win a majority.
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.
In Kentucky, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell recruited Secretary of State Trey Grayson to run after first pushing Sen. Jim Bunning into retirement for fear Bunning would be an easy mark for the Democrats.
But Grayson was swamped by Paul, a political novice who said on primary night he carries a message from the tea party: "We have come to take our government back."
The first post-primary polls rated Paul a favorite over Democratic rival Jack Conway. But the political newcomer stirred controversy by questioning the wisdom of the federal government enforcing racial desegregation in private businesses.
"I think he's said quite enough for the time being in terms of national press coverage," remarked McConnell.
More recently, Paul appointed a new campaign manager who has no prior experience in Kentucky or in running any statewide race. Paul has yet to select a pollster for the fall, and several Republicans say privately it will be difficult for him to win once his anti-government views are spread statewide by the Democrats.
Tea party activists figure in an unpredictable race in Nevada, where unemployment is 13.7 percent, and Reid has poll numbers as weak as any incumbent in the country.
GOP leaders hoped Lowden, a former state party head, would emerge from the primary. But Angle has financial backing from the tea party express, Lowden committed a gaffe by suggesting consumers use chickens to pay their doctor bills, and a union-backed group friendly to Reid jumped in with television commercials ridiculing her. Reid is now even in polls with Lowden and Angle.
Polling also suggests momentum in the June 8 primary belongs to Angle, whose website invites visitors to read her record. It says she favors abolishing the federal income tax, phasing out Social Security for younger workers and turning a proposed nuclear waste dump site at Yucca Mountain into a facility for reprocessing waste. In a state that is 20 percent Hispanic, she supports a requirement for voters to show identification before they can cast ballots.
Connecticut sets the standard for unpredictability. Sen. Christopher Dodd announced plans to retire, to the relief of Democratic officials who feared a five-term-incumbent would lose the seat.
Former Rep. Rob Simmons, the early Republican candidate-to-beat, suspended his campaign last week, then told the National Review he didn't believe Linda McMahon, former chief executive of World Wrestling Entertainment, could win in the fall because of "countless entertainment products that she'll have to defend, especially when Democrats make them known."
He later said he had spoken too freely, but as of late last week, his campaign channel on YouTube.com included a video showing women in various states of undress groping one another during a WWE event.
Not that Democrats are coasting.
Democratic Attorney General Richard Blumenthal has spent days explaining his erroneous statements about having served in Vietnam. It turns out he was stateside in the Marines Reserve during the war.
The furor had begun to fade when Biden drew fresh attention to it.
"I didn't serve in Vietnam. I don't want to make a Blumenthal mistake here. Our attorney general from Connecticut, God love him," said the vice president.
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