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In Senate races, GOP repeats familiar mistakes

After 2010 and 2012, Republican officials were committed to a smarter approach to winning back the Senate in 2014. It's not going well.
U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts speaks at an appearance for his Senate re-election campaign Friday, November 8, 2013, in Overland Park, Kansas.
U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts speaks at an appearance for his Senate re-election campaign Friday, November 8, 2013, in Overland Park, Kansas.
When looking ahead to next year's midterm elections, there are plenty of competitive Senate races that campaign observers are watching closely. The race in Kansas isn't one of them.
Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) is running for re-election in one of the nation's "reddest" states; he's always cruised to easy victories; and on the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee's list of 2014 races, Kansas isn't even mentioned. And yet, just yesterday, the Senate Conservatives Fund announced its endorsement of Roberts' primary challenger, political neophyte Milton Wolf.

"Kansas Republicans deserve a real choice this election, and Dr. Wolf gives them a chance to send someone new to Washington who will shake things up and bring about real change," SCF executive director Matt Hoskins said in a statement. Wolf is one of seven challengers to the 12 incumbent GOP senators seeking reelection.... Roberts has one of the more conservative records among Senate Republicans. He has the fifth highest rating on the Heritage Action scorecard and even voted against the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) bailout.

Indeed, it's worth noting that Roberts' lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union is 86.47, making him one of the Senate's most reliably far-right members. And yet, he's not only facing a primary, the Senate Conservatives Fund prefers his challenger.
It's against this backdrop that unhinged Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Texas) officially announced his primary campaign against Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) yesterday, publishing an online appeal with this headline: "I'm running for Senate against liberal John Cornyn."
The piece argues, in all seriousness, that Cornyn "wakes up every morning and works to make the Senate a more liberal place." The published item uses the phrase "liberal John Cornyn" literally 21 times.
Cornyn, it's worth noting, has a lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union of 93. National Journal described him as having "the second-most conservative voting record in the Senate in 2012" -- slightly to the right of Jim DeMint.
There are a couple of interesting angles to this. For example, as Jonathan Bernstein noted, "reading about liberal leftist John Cornyn gives the necessary context for claims about socialist Barack Obama." It's a good point -- for those of us who understand the meaning of words like "communist" and "socialist," listening to conservatives can be a little exasperating. But these new campaign developments help clarify matters -- if Pat Roberts isn't a reliable enough champion for the far-right and John Cornyn is a "liberal," then the hilarious extremism of the right-wing perspective comes into sharper focus.
‏What's more, let's also note that the recent election cycles have apparently taught the Republican base nothing. In 2010, the GOP could have won several more Senate seats, were it not for the primary debacles in states like Delaware, Nevada, and Colorado. In 2012, a very similar dynamic was evident in states like Missouri and Indiana. Over the same period, intra-party divisions cost respected senators like Dick Lugar and Bob Bennett their seats, and pushed Arlen Specter out of the party altogether.
Going into 2014, party leaders were eager, if not desperate, to prevent this from happening again. And yet, in addition to the Texas and Kansas races, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) are both facing credible primary opponents, and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has several challengers of his own. Politico noted today, "Republican primary challengers are lining up to take on sitting senators next year in eight of the 12 races involving sitting GOP senators." Since the filing deadlines remain open in many states, that total may yet grow.
To be sure, not all of these races feature the same dynamic -- in some of these cases, Republicans are likely to keep the seat regardless of the primary outcome. But in others, most notably in Georgia, Alaska, and North Carolina, there's a strong Democrat hoping GOP primary voters rally behind the nuttiest candidate in their field.
Regardless, Republican officials saw the dangers of these primaries in 2010 and 2012, were committed to a less damaging process in 2014, and found themselves powerless to stop the same story from unfolding once more.