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Will Democrats face a more united GOP in November?

May 21, 2014 at 6:18 PM EDT
Tuesday’s congressional primaries in Kentucky, Georgia and Oregon gave a boost to candidates favored by the Republican establishment as opposed to their more conservative opponents. The results raised GOP hopes to stretch the political map to take back control of the Senate. Judy Woodruff get insight from Jonathan Martin of The New York Times and Dan Balz of The Washington Post.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next to politics, and the results from Tuesday’s primary elections.

Republican voters in Kentucky, Georgia and Oregon gave a boost to candidates favored by the establishment and to the party’s chances of taking back control of the Senate.

Nowhere was the strength of the GOP establishment more evident than in Kentucky, where Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell crushed Tea Party challenger Matt Bevin by 25 points.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, Minority Leader: The tough race is behind us. It’s time to unite.

JUDY WOODRUFF: McConnell will face Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes in November, in what may be one of the most expensive, and contentious, races this year, as Republicans seek to win back the Senate.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL: There’s a reason, my friends, a reason every Hollywood liberal is sending her a check. It’s not because they care about Kentucky. I assure you of that. It’s because they know as well as we do that there isn’t a dime’s worth of difference, not a dime’s worth of difference between a candidate who puts Harry Reid in charge and Harry Reid himself.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Grimes, meanwhile, released a television ad today, insisting she would be an independent voice in Washington.

Grimes Campaign Ad: I’m running because I believe we need a senator who puts partisanship aside and works with both Democrats and Republicans to do what’s right for Kentucky, and our country. And no matter who the president is, I won’t answer to them. I will only answer to you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Republican brass also got its preferred Senate candidate in Oregon, where pediatric neurosurgeon Monica Wehby, who is pro- abortion rights, defeated a more conservative opponent. They hope she can stretch the political map and challenge Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley in the fall.

In Georgia, businessman David Perdue and Congressman Jack Kingston, two candidates also favored by the Republican establishment, advanced to a July runoff. The winner will face Democrat Michelle Nunn, daughter of former Senator Sam Nunn.

MICHELLE NUNN, Democratic Senate Candidate, Georgia: Who we send to Washington matters. Changing the culture of Washington, building up relationships, I pledge to meet with every senator in the first year. I want to find common ground.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In the race for Georgia governor, Democrat Jason Carter, grandson of former President Jimmy Carter, will take on Republican incumbent Nathan Deal. And in Pennsylvania, businessman Tom Wolf easily won the Democratic gubernatorial primary. His fall opponent will be Republican Tom Corbett, one of the party’s most vulnerable incumbents.

With us now, two reporters who follow American politics about as closely as one can, Jonathan Martin of The New York Times and Dan Balz of The Washington Post.

And welcome to you both back to the program.

DAN BALZ, The Washington Post: Thank you.

JONATHAN MARTIN, The New York Times: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Dan, let’s start by talking about the Republicans, Kentucky. The Senate minority leader, who wants to be the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, he pretty much coasted to re-nomination. What was that all about?

DAN BALZ: Well, he said — he told Jonathan’s newspaper two months ago they were going to crush the Tea Party everywhere, and he led the way last night. I don’t think anybody thought it was a surprise that he won, but I think the margin was more impressive than some people thought he might do.

And he was — the thing we know about Senator McConnell is, he is a tough, tough, tough campaigner, and he demonstrated that in this race and put Matt Bevin behind him and is now focused squarely on Alison Grimes and this race going into the fall is going to be a repeat of that, very tough race.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Jonathan, were the force at work in Kentucky the same things that were at work in Georgia helping the mainstream Republicans there in Oregon, or are we talking about something different?

JONATHAN MARTIN: I think each of those states is a little bit unique, because obviously races that feature incumbents, and certainly those who have been there 30 years, are always different than those that are open races.

But I think the recurring theme here is that you see Republicans that are learning mistakes of the recent election cycles, in which they didn’t put enough care into nominating some of these candidates. It’s not just pure ideology. It’s also just the quality of the candidates and the nature of the campaigns.

And I think that those who are better candidates are raising more money and who are smarter and shrewder about how they approach the campaigns are doing better. In some cases, the candidates are a little bit more conservative. But it’s more about the candidates, I think, this time around.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Dan, because what I wanted to ask you, it’s not that the conservatives don’t feel every bit as passionate about what they believe, is it?

DAN BALZ: No, not at all.

And we have spent most of the spring talking about the narrative of the Tea Party vs. the establishment. And in most weeks, we have declared the establishment the winner, but it’s a more complicated story than that.

And part of it is, as Jonathan said, the establishment has figured out how to run these races. They recognized that they made some mistakes by, if not allowing some candidates, by not paying enough attention to these races before. You could argue that they would have five more seats in the Senate now if they had done in previous years what they are doing this year.

But the other aspect of this is the Tea Party in many ways has sort of bent the establishment to its part — its corner of ideological spectrum. And so, as Speaker Boehner said this week, there is not a huge difference in a lot of ways on many of these issues, as some people think. There are stylistic differences. There’s issues of how you comport yourself in Washington, but on most of the big issues that this campaign will be fought out over, the Tea Party and the establishment are pretty much in the same place.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You’re nodding your head.

JONATHAN MARTIN: I was talking to a longtime conservative warrior today, who said, look, the problem with too much of the press narrative is, you guys are stuck in 1985 with Charles Percy and Ed Brooke, moderate to liberal Republicans.


JONATHAN MARTIN: And the fact is, it’s a conservative party now. The conservatives for the most part took over the party in the last 30 years, and there are fewer and fewer moderates left. Most of them have become Democrats.

There are still a few, but the differences ideologically have sort of shrunken over the years. And so you have these primaries that are much more about tactics and personalities.

DAN BALZ: Well, I was going to say, as Jonathan said, candidate quality makes a difference. And there have been some races in which Tea Party candidates have been better.

A week ago, we were talking about Ben Sasse in Nebraska, who is a Tea Party candidate, though he has some real establishment pedigrees.

DAN BALZ: In Texas in 2012, Ted Cruz, the Tea Party candidate, was a better candidate than the person he defeated, the lieutenant governor.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And that was just two years — not even two years ago.

JONATHAN MARTIN: And it’s tough, Judy, also to like figure out who is going to be actually falling into which camp, because all of them sound conservative, notice, on the campaign trail.

But then when they show up, obviously, there are nuances in how they vote and how they approach different bills. But on the campaign trail, there are very few unapologetic moderates left out there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, in fact, your newspaper editorialized — I realize the editorial page is very different from the reporting page.


JUDY WOODRUFF: The Times editorialized yesterday that you still have some of the same conservative values out there in these candidates.

I guess my question, though, is Dan and Jonathan, what — if they are — if the party has bent to the right, then why isn’t it — why wouldn’t that give Democrats more of a hope? If Democrats — if you assume you need to move to the mainstream to win, then…


Well, it’s given them quite a bit of hope every four years, during the White House campaigns, because they have won five out of the last six popular votes for president. The challenge for them, as we have chronicled and Dan has chronicled at some length, is the fact that in these off-year elections, the nature of the electorate is far different looking than it is during the presidential campaigns, and especially this year, Judy, because the map where these Senate races are being fought is largely red America, and that puts Democrats in a tough spot, a natural sort of smaller electorate, combined with the fact that the terrain is tough for them.

DAN BALZ: I think the one thing the Democrats have been hoping for is a repeat of what they saw in 2010 and 2012, which is some of the weaker candidates emerging.

And I talked to a Democrat who has been involved in these elections for a number of years, who said one thing she’s worried about is that they’re facing a more united right, a more united conservative movement in this year than they did in 2012.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, that being the case, what is the strategy for Democrats? We see in Kentucky Alison Grimes is saying, I’m an independent, I’m not tied to Harry Reid or Barack Obama.


Well, in that kind of race, it’s all about making the campaign about Mitch McConnell and his record. In the other races where you have got either an incumbent Democrat or an open seat, it’s really going to vary. But you’re absolutely right, Judy.

These Democrats were hoping for different candidates in some of these races, and they haven’t gotten them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is part of their salvation, if there is any, if there is any hope for Democrats, because we’re painting a pretty bleak set of prospects for them, Dan, changing the turnout?

DAN BALZ: Well, that’s what they’re hoping to do.

I think that their belief is that a number of these candidates who have, in a sense, moved to the right will be less acceptable to the population at large.

But the truth of the matter is most of these tough races are being fought in red states, so that’s not necessarily going to work. But I think that their other hope is that, particularly in races where Democratic incumbents are in trouble, that some of these candidates have yet to really be fully defined to the electorate at large.

And they’re going to test them over the next few months. They’re going to push them. They’re going to see whether these candidates really are up for general elections.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So what is going to make the difference? Is it money? Is it message? Is it a combination of all of the above?

JONATHAN MARTIN: Oh, I think it’s going to be the national environment this fall.

Can President Obama improve his standing somewhat, or does he fall? A lot of these races typically turn on where the president is. Look at 1998. The economy was going great guns; therefore, Bill Clinton was fairly popular, despite the sort of lingering scandal around him. And Democrats did fairly well.

So, where is President Obama this fall? That’s what I’m going to be watching.


The fundamentals obviously, as everybody knows, are not good for the Democrats, so they’re trying to move things at the margins. If the president’s approval rating goes from the 43-44 range to 46-47, Democrats will breathe a little easier. If the economy picks up a little steam, Democrats will feel better. It’s those kinds of things.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Dan Balz, Jonathan Martin, great to have you both.


DAN BALZ: Thank you.