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Primary results boost Republican hopes of taking over the Senate

BY Domenico Montanaro, Terence Burlij, Rachel Wellford and Simone Pathe  May 21, 2014 at 9:06 AM EDT
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his wife Elaine Chao arrive for a victory celebration following Tuesday's primary results in Louisville, Kentucky. McConnell defeated tea party challenger Matt Bevin and will likely face a close race in the fall against Democratic Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Grimes. Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his wife Elaine Chao arrive for a victory celebration following Tuesday’s primary results in Louisville, Kentucky. McConnell defeated tea party challenger Matt Bevin and will likely face a close race in the fall against Democratic Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Grimes. Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

The Morning Line

Today in the Morning Line:

  • Pieces falling into place for GOP
  • A very bad night for the tea party
  • Explaining why, in anti-Washington climate, incumbents, including McConnell, are doing so well
  • Wolf wins big in Pennsylvania
  • Obama to meet with Shinseki, Nabors

Another good night for Republican establishment: The Republican establishment showed its strength yet again Tuesday, getting the Senate candidates in Kentucky, Georgia and Oregon that they believe give them the best shot at taking back control of the chamber next year. In Kentucky, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell trounced tea party-backed businessman Matt Bevin by 25 points, setting up a matchup with Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, one that could be the most expensive Senate race in the country. In Georgia, two candidates favored by the GOP establishment — former Dollar General chief executive David Perdue and 11-term Rep. Jack Kingston — advanced to a July 22 runoff. And in Oregon, pro-abortion rights pediatric neurosurgeon Monica Wehby took 51 percent of the vote to defeat conservative state Rep. Jason Conger in the GOP primary.

Stars aligning: Republicans need to gain a net of six seats to take back control of the Senate, and so far, the pieces are falling into place exactly as they want them to for the party to have a shot at accomplishing its goal. Earlier this month, Thom Tillis claimed the GOP Senate nomination in North Carolina, avoiding a potentially damaging runoff and giving the establishment its top pick to challenge Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan. McConnell’s victory was expected, but his margin may signal less concern about conservatives coming home in November. Perdue or Kingston is not the outcome Democrats would have hoped for in Georgia to give their candidate, philanthropist Michelle Nunn, the best chance to win. Oregon remains a long shot for Republicans, but Wehby helps Republican chances of unseating Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley in a big wave.

Why anti-Washington hasn’t been enough: Let’s get this out of the way: running on congressional experience is not an asset. In Pennsylvania, Rep. Allyson Schwartz, D-Pa., and former Rep. Marjorie Margolies, D-Pa. (Chelsea Clinton’s mother-in-law, endorsed by the Clintons) lost in their races last night, for example (though Washington experience may not have been their only problem). Ex-Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., finished second in his comeback bid, but advanced to the runoff. McConnell had to pour a lot of resources into defeating Bevin. And outside groups like the Chamber of Commerce came to the rescue of people like Reps. Mike Simpson and Jack Kingston. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., pulled out a closer-than-he-would-have-liked primary, taking 53 percent of the vote. But despite the deeply anti-Washington mood that shows up in polling, the power of the incumbency is still very strong. In fact, not a single House or Senate incumbent has lost yet this cycle. They are 139-for-139, including 45-for-45 last night.

‘Keep the bums in’: As the Los Angeles Times’ Mark Z. Barabak wrote earlier this year, “A keep-the-bums-in mood may prevail in midterm election.” How can it be that with Congress’ approval ratings in single digits in some polls that this is the case? Because the House, for example, is already incredibly polarized and most people blame the other guy and the other side. As Stu Rothenberg told Barabak: “Republicans blame liberals and big government and Obama; Democrats are upset because they think the tea party won’t allow anything to get done — Republicans are too extreme.” Both Democrats Grimes and Nunn are running on Washington dissatisfaction. That’s the theme of Grimes’ first general election ad, up Wednesday. Next week, by the way, COULD see the first incumbent lose in Ralph Hall of Texas. His opponent has running on Hall being in Congress too long — he’s the oldest member of Congress at 91. Reps. Mike Honda, D-Calif., and Charlie Rangel, D-N.Y., are also vulnerable and their races take place later in the cycle.

Tom Wolf and the power of (early) positive ads: The Democrat who might have had the best night Tuesday was Tom Wolf, who cruised to victory over Schwartz and two others in Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial primary, winning 58 percent of the vote. Buoyed by $10 million of his own money and a series of positive television ads, Wolf, the owner of a kitchen cabinet maker, will take on vulnerable Republican Gov. Tom Corbett in November. Wolf jumped from single digits to front-runner in the span of a few months, thanks in large part to the TV spots. The L.A. Times notes that Wolf aired 1,800 commercials in late January and early February, when he was the only candidate on the air.

Obama meets with Shinseki: President Barack Obama meets with embattled Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki and White House deputy chief of staff Rob Nabors, assigned to the VA, Wednesday morning at the White House. The closed-door meeting comes amid a VA scandal in which it’s alleged that veterans may have died waiting for treatment. Nabors heads to Phoenix tonight to visit one of the VA facilities in question. Meanwhile, House Republicans are pushing what it’s calling the “VA Accountability Act,” which Boehner’s office says would “give the current or future VA Secretary the tools he needs to discipline or fire senior managers.” But it is also putting out a research document highlighting what it calls “the gap between the President’s rhetoric and reality on veterans’ issues.”

Daily Presidential Trivia: On this day in 1954, the Senate rejected President Eisenhower’s plan for 18-year-olds’ voting rights. Under which president and what year did the law finally change? Be the first to Tweet us the correct answer using #PoliticsTrivia, and you’ll get a Morning Line shout-out. Congratulations to Graham H. Morris (@GrahamHMorris) and Katelyn Polantz ‏(@kpolantz) for correctly guessing Monday’s trivia: what event one month prior prompted the closing of the two blocks of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House? The answer was: the Oklahoma City bombing.

LINE ITEMS

  • The Obama administration will release a classified memo written by an appeals court nominee that signed off on killing an American accused of being a terrorist. The nominee, David Barron, faces a procedural vote in the Senate Wednesday.
  • A federal judge on Tuesday struck down Pennsylvania’s ban on same-sex marriage. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania joins the District of Columbia and 18 other states in legalizing same-sex marriage.
  • D’oh… Arkansas gubernatorial hopeful Asa Hutchinson had to wait to vote Tuesday after he forgot to bring his ID to the polls.
  • According to numbers released Tuesday, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee outraised its Republican counterpart by $3 million in April. The DCCC has more than $43 million in the bank while the NRCC has about $32 million cash on hand.
  • The L.A. Times’ Barabak identifies seven House races to watch this year.
  • Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi met for an hour Tuesday to discuss the House special committee on Benghazi.
  • South Carolina GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham’s sister stars in her brother’s latest ad. “Lindsey doesn’t love being a senator,” she says, but loves serving the people of South Carolina.
  • In a speech at the Heritage Foundation Tuesday, Texas Rep. Jeb Hensarling continued to fuel speculation that he will run for House speaker.
  • New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s administration worked to woo the mayor of Fort Lee for over a year before the lane closures on the George Washington Bridge, according to testimony from former Christie aide Matt Mowers Tuesday. Christie has claimed Mayor Mark Sokolich was never on his “radar screen.”
  • Florida Sen. Marco Rubio put a hold on President Obama’s nominee for U.S. ambassador to Argentina, when Noah Mamet admitted he had never been to the South American nation. Mamet is an Obama 2012 bundler who helped raise $500,000 for his campaign.
  • A Republican, a centrist Democrat and an establishment Democrat — all former Senators — all walk into a bar… The trio is joining forces to grow the telemedicine industry, in order to increase healthcare access for Americans as well as making it more affordable.
  • The conservative non-profit group Crossroads GPS spent more than $3.5 million for an ad that attacks North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan’s support of the Affordable Care Act.
  • A Republican-authored bill to allow “dreamers” to enlist in the military is going nowhere in the House, with conservatives claiming that the opportunity for them to qualify for legal status amounts to amnesty.
  • According to a new survey conducted by a UC San Diego professor, young immigrants who grew up with illegal status are disillusioned with both parties, with nearly half of them identifying as independent or as having no party affiliation at all.
  • With the governor’s mansion out of reach, New York Republicans are hopeful they can defeat Eric Schneiderman as attorney general, who has enjoyed less than consistent support from Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
  • Republican voters rank military service much higher than Democrats when it comes to selecting a president, according to a new Pew Research Center survey.
  • Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito stayed the execution of a Missouri man late Tuesday night, due to concerns about a medical condition that could interfere with the administration of lethal injection.
  • The New York Times’ Matt Apuzzo examines the history of discrimination against homosexuals in the U.S. government and its policies on firing gay employees.
  • D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray’s plans to recycle thousands of plastic trash cans has turned into a political mess.
  • Keep an eye on the Rundown blog for breaking news throughout the day, our home page for show segments, and follow @NewsHour for the latest.

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Questions or comments? Email Domenico Montanaro at dmontanaro-at-newshour-dot-org or Terence Burlij at tburlij-at-newshour-dot-org.

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