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 about the best way to oppose President Barack Obama’s signature law.
In intraparty skirmishes from Georgia to Nebraska, the GOP’s most strident candidates and activists are insisting on a no-holds-barred approach. They accuse fellow Republicans — including several incumbent senators — of being too soft in their opposition to the Affordable Care Act and to the president in general.
The outcomes will help determine just how conservative the Senate Republican caucus will be during Obama’s final two years. And they could influence which party controls the chamber, with Democrats hoping the most uncompromising Republican standard-bearers will emerge from the primaries and fare as poorly in general elections as their counterparts did in several 2012 Senate races. Republicans need to gain six seats for a majority.
Republican Rep. Jack Kingston, of Georgia, who wants to succeed retiring GOP Sen. Saxby Chambliss, stepped into the rift recently when he seemed to scold much of his party during an interview on a conservative talk radio show.
“A lot of conservatives say, ‘Nah, just step back and let this thing fall to pieces on its own,” Kingston said. “Well, I don’t think that’s always the responsible thing to do.”
Rep. Paul Broun, one of Kingston’s rivals in a crowded primary field, pounced immediately, declaring in an Internet ad, “I don’t want to fix Obamacare, I want to get rid of it.” Conservative commentators hammered Kingston with headlines such as “Kingston has surrendered on Obamacare.”
In Tennessee, state Rep. Joe Carr blasted Sen. Lamar Alexander for serving as a key GOP negotiator in the deal to end the partial government shutdown that resulted from House Republicans’ efforts to deny funding for the health care law. Alexander subsequently described himself as a “conservative problem solver,” a characterization Carr said “typifies how out of touch he is.”
Kentucky businessman Matt Bevin is using a similar line of attack in trying to unseat Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, as is Mississippi state Sen. Chris McDaniel in his primary challenge to Sen. Thad Cochran. Carr, Bevin and McDaniel all said they’d be more like freshmen Sens. Mike Lee, of Utah, and Ted Cruz, of Texas, tea party favorites who pushed the defunding strategy and vexed their longer-serving colleagues.
In Nebraska and Louisiana, Republican candidates who said they oppose the health care law had to defend their past positions on health care.
National Republicans settled on Rep. Bill Cassidy as their best shot to beat Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La. But retired Air Force Colonel Rob Maness noted Cassidy, as a state senator and a physician in the state’s public hospital system, pushed health care policies similar to those in the Affordable Care Act.
“He has to defend his entire record, regardless of how he’s voted in Washington,” said Maness, a GOP candidate who hopes to unseat Landrieu with tea party support.
Midland University President Ben Sasse, one of several Republicans running in Nebraska for retiring Sen. Mike Johanns’ seat, said he opposes the health care law but had to explain previous speeches and writings in which he was less absolute, at one point calling the act “an important first step” in overhauling American health care.
“This goes right to the bigger fight between the ideologues and the pragmatists,” said Republican strategist Todd Rehm, of Georgia, who isn’t affiliated with any of the eight GOP candidates for Chambliss’ seat.
Candidates who want to capture the divided Republican electorate, he said, “see that you can’t compromise on any of it. … The moment you start to sound like you’re open to any compromise, you’ve sold out the ideologues.”