By Patrick O’Connor
That’s the day Republican primary voters in Georgia, Idaho and Kentucky pick their nominees for the fall campaigns – and, in the process, help settle which faction of the GOP holds the upper hand in an ongoing split between party leaders and conservative activists.
May will bring some of this year’s most competitive Republican primaries. At this point, it looks as if the environment is tilting heavily in the establishment’s favor. Consider the landscape.
Polling is pretty thin in most of the primary contests, but in Kentucky, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has maintained a sizable advantage over his conservative challenger, Louisville businessman Matt Bevin. Mr. Bevin, already defending himself from a barrage of outside attacks, recently stumbled into a brewing controversy when he appeared to tell a group of cock-fighting enthusiasts that the federal government shouldn’t criminalize the practice.
In Idaho, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other outside groups have poured money into a Republican primary to defend longtime Rep. Mike Simpson, drowning out his conservative rival, Bryan Smith. And in Georgia, where three House members and a former Georgia secretary of state are vying for the nomination to replace retiring GOP Sen. Saxby Chambliss, David Perdue, the former chief executive of Reebok and Dollar General, has led every poll conducted this year.
The Chamber of Commerce and other business-friendly groups are expected to jump into other races in the next few days and spend heavily to influence the outcome.
Other races, on other dates, look more promising for the outside groups that have built their reputations – and bank accounts – challenging incumbent Republicans and the candidates handpicked by GOP leaders. In Mississippi, state Sen. Chris McDaniel is forcing Republican Sen. Thad Cochran to work hard for another seventh term. And a number of high-profile conservative groups have rallied around a former Bush administration official in Nebraska who is running neck-and-neck with other Republicans in the primary to replace retiring GOP Sen. Mike Johanns.
In some cases, the conservative groups and GOP establishment are supporting the same candidate. In Iowa, where a crowd of Republicans is running for the Senate nomination on June 3, 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, 2008 vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin and the Senate Conservatives Fund are all backing state Sen. Joni Ernst.
The primary calendar stretches deep into September – or November, if you count Louisiana, where the top two vote-getters square off in December – but the political world should know by mid-June who is winning the war inside the GOP. And the outcome could have a profound effect on how party leaders govern after the election, especially if the conservative revolt doesn’t materialize as much as had been advertised at this point last year.