Georgia conveniently did not appear during National Republican Senatorial Committee executive director Rob Collins’ half-hour PowerPoint presentation on key U.S. Senate races last week to a conference room full of political reporters.
That’s because the open seat vacated by Saxby Chambliss represents more of a potential pitfall than a hype-worthy opportunity for Republicans, as it’s one of only two states where they are playing defense and an eight-way GOP primary has many in the party worried about a flawed or damaged nominee.
The NRSC is determined not to let that happen.
“The path to getting a general election candidate who can win is the only thing we care about,” Collins said. “This team didn’t get built and everyone didn’t give up everything they gave up to kinda win. We’re here to win. I mean, so we’ll do what it takes.”
The fractious debate about the future of the Republican Party has been waged lately with snippy comments launched among various Washington-based influence groups, often loosely divided into the “establishment” and “tea party” camps. The NRSC last week moved to cut off campaign vendors who also do work for the Senate Conservatives Fund, which has attacked Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. and other Republican incumbents.
Asked about such groups’ influence on primaries, Collins said, “A lot of the (yearly) budgets for these groups, we do on a monthly basis.”
Still, a slew of conservative-oriented groups could spend serious cash in Georgia on behalf of an NRSC-unapproved Republican. The two most likely to provoke such establishment concern are Reps. Paul Broun of Athens and Phil Gingrey of Marietta, who have far-right voting records and a history of statements of the kind that helped sink Republican nominees in Indiana and Missouri last year.
But any establishment effort to attack Broun or Gingrey could easily backfire, giving a candidate anti-Washington cachet with grassroots conservatives who hold outsized sway in Republican primaries.
In 2010, the committee overtly endorsed and raised money for handpicked primary candidates, while it backed off in 2012 for non-incumbents. In both cycles, Republicans were bitten by candidate flops in otherwise winnable general election campaigns, and new conservative heroes beat establishment picks and are now making waves in the Senate.
Collins would not say exactly how the NRSC would approach this round, only that “all options are on the table in every race.”
The outcome of Tuesday’s Virginia governor’s race did little to resolve the dispute.
Republican activists nominated Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli for governor in a convention system over more moderate Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling. Democrats’ foremost and most relentless attacks on Cuccinelli came for his views on abortion and contraception, painting him as far enough out of the mainstream to allow their own flawed candidate, Terry McAuliffe, to squeak in with a victory.
Though Georgia is far redder than Virginia, the culture-war message is likely to come up again. Gingrey is particularly vulnerable for his comments – since retracted – that women’s bodies can block conception after a rape, in partial defense of failed 2012 Senate hopeful Todd Akin of Missouri.
But many grassroots groups don’t see Cuccinelli as a cautionary tale and accused mainstream Republicans of abandoning him when he could have used a push in a close race.
Washington-based FreedomWorks is among the groups vetting Georgia’s Senate hopefuls to determine if they are sufficiently conservative. Dean Clancy, the head of FreedomWorks’ PAC, said the group is not more likely to get involved in a race just because “the establishment” is weighing in.
“We’re less interested in the tea party-versus-establishment theme than in the America-versus-Washington theme,” Clancy said. “But we do think that sometimes you have to beat the Republicans before you beat the Democrats.”