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Will establishment Republican candidates strike back during primary season?

May 5, 2014 at 6:17 PM EST
Primaries in North Carolina, Indiana and Ohio will kick off the 2014 midterm election season. Over the next month and a half, 25 states will vote in primaries for Congressional and local offices. Gwen Ifill gets a preview of some of the battles from NewsHour political editor Domenico Montanaro.
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GWEN IFILL: After months of politicking and prediction, tomorrow kicks off what is about to be a very busy primary election season. Voters in three states, North Carolina, Indiana, and Ohio, head to the polls tomorrow. What’s more, over the next month-and-a-half, 25 states, half of the nation, will hold primaries for Congress and local offices.

To help us understand what’s happening in these races, we introduce you tonight to NewsHour’s new political editor, Domenico Montanaro.

New to them, not so new to us, but not a moment too soon.

A lot to fit in that is going on right now, but let’s start in the petri dish of primary politics right now, North Carolina, where Senator Kay Hagan, the Democrat, is standing aside as she watches three Republicans compete for her job, Thom Tillis, Greg Brannon, Mark Harris. Tell us about them.

DOMENICO MONTANARO: Well, look, North Carolina is one of these states, it’s just — it’s where everyone thinks that the election goes through, because we have got — Republicans need six seats to take back the Senate.

This one is where Mitt Romney won. They think that Kay Hagan is vulnerable. And Thom Tillis is the person who can — who establishment Republicans really think has the best chance to beat Hagan. The problem, though, is that he needs to get 40 percent tomorrow to be able to surpass the threshold for — to avoid a runoff. And if he doesn’t do that, then we’re talking July 15th is when that runoff takes place, and he’s going to have to be fighting to see how conservative he is or the other candidates are before they can take on Kay Hagan.

GWEN IFILL: Who are the other two?

DOMENICO MONTANARO: So, we have Mark Harris, who is an evangelical pastor, not the top challenger, though.

Greg Brannon, who is the — is a doctor, libertarian, mentions the Constitution in almost everything that he talks about. Rand Paul is backing him. He is the top challenger to Tillis, and right — that is why you see a lot of outside groups right now pouring tons of money in right now to try to back up Tillis. We have seen 15,000 ads so far run in North Carolina, $6.5 million.

GWEN IFILL: Wow.

DOMENICO MONTANARO: Ninety percent of that money coming from outside groups.

GWEN IFILL: OK, let’s go to Kentucky, the Bluegrass State, Kentucky Derby, all of these things.

Senator Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the leader of the Senate Republicans, finds himself — or at least we thought earlier this year, found himself in a pretty tight reelection challenge in this case against a fellow named Matt Bevin, who is once again a Tea Party challenger. And how is that going?

DOMENICO MONTANARO: Well, right now, Mitch McConnell, everyone believes, is way ahead in the polls against Matt Bevin, but he has had to spend a lot of time trying to take on Bevin.

And what has happened in the meantime is that Alison Lundergan Grimes, who is the Democrat waiting in the wings to take him on, has been able to sort of wait, has been able to build up her own name identification in the state, and try to tack to the center before she takes on McConnell.

So, right now, they’re tied. And the big question going to be for McConnell is if he can get back some of these traditional conservatives who are backing Bevin. And that’s what is really keeping this race tight. If can get those folks on his side, people think that he will be able to defeat Grimes and hope to become the next Senate majority leader, by the way.

GWEN IFILL: That’s right, if the Senate — if the Republicans take over the Senate.

Is as much outside money coming into Kentucky as North Carolina?

DOMENICO MONTANARO: Not quite as much as North Carolina, but we’re seeing a ton of outside money.

One aspect where you’re seeing a lot of outside money, actually, a million dollars has been spent by the Senate Conservative Fund to try to defeat McConnell. But that hasn’t quite worked out for them at this point.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk about Georgia, where there’s a lot of people who have decided they are going for an open seat. Saxby Chambliss, the Republican from Georgia, is retiring. And so there are no fewer than five people running for that seat, for the Republican nomination, three of them sitting members of Congress.

DOMENICO MONTANARO: Well, no doubt about that.

You have these five members running. Like you said, you have got Jack Kingston, Phil Gingrey, Paul Broun, David Perdue, who is a former Reebok CEO and Dollar General, and a — so you have got these folks all here who are really trying to upend what has happened in this open seat.

And when you have this many people, Republicans are served that Michelle Nunn waiting in the wings, who is the Democrat, daughter of Sam Nunn, that if they can’t kind of get past this primary quickly — and the problem for them is they need 50 percent to move on in the May 20 primary.

If they don’t get 50 percent — and almost nobody expects that they will — there is a July 22 runoff, so a lot of time for Nunn to then define herself, tack to the center, while Republicans fight it out.

GWEN IFILL: And a runoff in the dead of summer.

But we’re talking — does this break down the way it does, say, in North Carolina or in other states that we have been watching, Tea Party establishment, Christian evangelical among the Republicans?

DOMENICO MONTANARO: Well, we have seen that so far, at least in North Carolina. You have Tea Party with Brannon. You have evangelical with Harris.

GWEN IFILL: But what about Georgia?

DOMENICO MONTANARO: In Georgia, it’s not quite so clean-cut, because have — more so there, you have a lot of outside group — or outsiders who are trying to take on the establishment a little bit more.

But it’s — you know, these folks are really — what Republicans are worried about, were worried about, is either Broun or Gingrey getting through, because they felt like they were less disciplined than some of the other three out front.

GWEN IFILL: Democrats lucked out last name with a couple of weak Senate candidates, Republican candidates. And are they sitting back — when we’re thinking about Todd Akin in Missouri, Richard Mourdock in Indiana or even Christine O’Donnell in Delaware — are they sitting back and waiting for the Republicans to implode? Is that too much for them to hope for?

DOMENICO MONTANARO: I think Democrats would love for something like that to happen.

But what we have seen is Republicans ready for it this time around, establishment Republicans really flexing their muscles this time. And what these next six weeks are going to tell us is, does the Tea Party have some of that momentum still on its side? And so far, it looks like the establishment is striking back? Because Mitch McConnell, for one, some others are — really decided that they are going to push full-throttle to make sure that the Tea Party doesn’t have a chance to take them — to take them over.

Of course, some Democrats are trying to say, well, that is because they have co-opted their messaging. And whatever it is, whatever it comes down to, if Republicans can keep them, keep their establishment folks on the winning side of things, they feel like that will give them a better chance, because they feel like they have blown about five seats over the last two cycles.

GWEN IFILL: Well, with half the country to keep track of, Domenico, we will be talking about this some more.

Thank you so much.

DOMENICO MONTANARO: Oh, thanks for having me on.