Republican incumbents didn't just dodge a bullet in the 2014 primaries — they dodged six.
Every Senate Republican running for re-election this year won his primary, denying the GOP nomination to less experienced Tea Party challengers who could have put safe seats in play for the Democrats.
Among the winners so far: Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Minority Whip John Cornyn of Texas and Sens. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Thad Cochran of Mississippi, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Pat Roberts of Kansas.
But those results weren’t the Republicans’ only stroke of good fortune this year.
In at least 10 other GOP primaries in states with open seats or where the incumbent Democrat is running for re-election, the Republicans nominated solid candidates.
That includes three Republicans who are supported by the Tea Party — Arkansas’ Tom Cotton, Iowa’s Joni Ernst and Nebraska’s Ben Sasse — and two GOP Establishment candidates who defeated flawed conservative insurgents: Georgia’s David Perdue and North Carolina’s Thom Tillis.
These results are a sharp contrast from 2012, when Republicans nominated a handful of weak Tea Party and Establishment candidates who cost the party winnable races and shot at the Senate majority. Most notably, Missouri nominee Todd Akin lost to vulnerable Democratic incumbent Sen. Claire McCaskill after he commented that a woman couldn't get pregnant as the result of a "legitimate rape."
The Republican primary victories didn’t happen in a vacuum. McConnell and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the GOP organization charged with winning Senate races, focused early on finding good candidates who could win a general election.
“From Day 1, we've made clear that accomplishing our mission starts with making sure that each of our incumbents is reelected. We were not shy about unequivocally supporting incumbents,” NRSC spokesman Brad Dayspring told the Washington Examiner on Friday. “It was a deliberate decision made collectively by the entire team.”
Only the Alaska’s Aug. 19 primary and Louisiana’s Nov. 4 jungle primary remain as potential pitfalls for Establishment Republicans.
In Alaska, insurgent Republican Joe Miller is calling for President Obama to be impeached, foreshadowing the problems he could cause the GOP if he won the nomination.
Miller wouldn’t just have a tougher time defeating Democratic Sen. Mark Begich than his Republican primary opponents — his politically toxic push for impeachment could imperil his party in other races.
Miller beat Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the 2010 GOP primary, but ran such a poor campaign that he ended up losing to her in the general election after she sought re-election as a write-in. However, Miller is facing two strong candidates and is unlikely to win this time around.
Louisiana holds a jungle-style primary on Election Day in November, with the top two finishers advancing to a December runoff if the winner doesn’t clear 50 percent.
Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., is a strong campaigner and has previously fended off GOP challenges in strong Republican years. The Tea Party has pinned its hopes on military veteran Rob Maness, while the GOP establishment believes Rep. Bill Cassidy is stronger against Landrieu.
Cassidy has led Maness, and public polling available to date suggests the GOP Establishment is right about him being stronger against Landrieu. Still, it’s too early to write off Maness, as Republican Senate primaries often close late. Democrats argue that the only reason Republicans survived the primary season unscathed was because the GOP embraced extremist Tea Party policies.
"In order to avoid embarrassing primary losses, national Republicans embraced Tea Party candidates like Tom Cotton, [Colorado's] Cory Gardner and Joni Ernst who support policies that will be unacceptable to a general electorate and that’s a recipe for defeat in November," said Justin Barasky, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
The NRSC’s change of strategy under Chairman Jerry Moran of Kansas, executed in concert with McConnell, was a shift from the previous cycle, when the committee, then led by Cornyn, chose not to inject itself into primaries for fear of angering the Tea Party and stoking intraparty divisions between conservatives and the establishment.
Congressional campaign committees, organized and run by sitting members, have historically been active in party primaries on behalf of favored candidates.
The NRSC’s support for incumbents took several forms in this year’s contested primaries.
• Tennessee: On Thursday, Alexander defeated state Rep. Joe Carr 50 percent to 41 percent. The race finished closer than Alexander’s previous primaries, although it was never in doubt. The NRSC sent its political director, Volunteer State native Ward Baker, south for the final week of the campaign to assist Alexander. The committee had been strategizing with Alexander, a former two-term Tennessee governor, for the past year. He is a shoo-in to win the general election, assuring the seat remains in Republican hands.
• Kansas: On Tuesday, Roberts held off radiologist Milton Wolf, who happens to be related to Obama. But he had a harder time with his Tea Party challenger than Alexander had with his. Roberts' political standing at home also was more precarious than Alexander’s. The help the Kansan received from the NRSC reflected this. The NRSC deployed its regional political director to the state for the final three weeks of the campaign. She focused on voter turnout, driving up Roberts’ early vote totals and messaging. The committee also focused on the key battleground of Johnson County in eastern Kansas. It placed six aides on the ground in the county for the campaign’s final 10 days. It ran a D.C.-based phone bank that made over 40,000 calls. Wolf still won Johnson County, but only by an insignificant 100 votes.
• Mississippi: Of all of the Republican incumbents seeking re-election, Cochran was the most endangered. He lost round one of his primary to state Sen. Chris McDaniel and only won re-nomination after convincing thousands of Democrats to support him in a runoff, which they were legally entitled to do under the Magnolia State’s open primary system. But the NRSC is also claiming credit here, saying their efforts help drive more than 10,000 Republican Cochran supporters to the polls in the June 24 runoff who had failed to vote in the June 3 primary. The committee’s assistance included more than $250,000 in direct donations to the Cochran campaign and in investments in coordinated activities focused on voter turnout. The NRSC sent 45 volunteers to Mississippi for the two-week runoff campaign; they knocked on 65,000 doors. Other NRSC volunteer were responsible for logging 45,000 phone calls to voters identified as Republicans (Mississippi doesn’t register by party). The committee’s independent expenditure arm spent another $175,000 on voter turnout.