Dog Fights

For all the talk of conservatives loyally beginning to close ranks behind Mitt Romney, all is not peaceful in the Republican valley.

Intra-party ideological warfare in GOP Senate primaries got a lot of attention in 2010–but not so much in this cycle. That’s probably because most of the action is in states where Republicans are dominant. Two contests involving incumbents–Utah, where a Tea Party challenge to Orrin Hatch looks to be fizzling (a state convention this weekend could award Hatch renomination without the inconvenience of a primary), and Indiana, where Dick Lugar remains in danger of losing to hard-core conservative Richard Mourdock on May 8–have gotten attention. But less so the open-seat states of Texas, Nebraska and Wisconsin, all of which are featuring heavily ideological primaries.

The stakes in these open-seat contests is turgidly summarized by Washington Examiner columnist Timothy Carney, who’s not real objective:

Conservative insurgents pose serious threats this year to establishment Republicans in at least three open-seat Senate races. In every case, political action committees and lobbyists have hugely favored the establishment pick with contributions. One reason: The GOP establishment rallies industry donors behind the Republican seen as stronger in November. A deeper reason: The revolving-door clique of K Street and Capitol Hill operatives needs Republicans elected to upper chamber who are likely to play ball.

“We don’t need a lot of Jim DeMint disciples,” former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott said last election cycle. “As soon as they get here, we need to co-opt them.” Lott is now a millionaire corporate lobbyist whose clients include bailout beneficiaries like Goldman Sachs and Citigroup, subsidy sucklers like General Electric and for-profit colleges and government contractors like Raytheon. He likes Republicans who don’t take their limited-government talk so darn seriously — team players who won’t rock the boat, in part because they are eying K Street jobs after retirement.

Leave it to ol’ Trent to provide his opponents with plenty of ammunition.

In Texas, “movement conservative” heartthrob Ted Cruz is going up against the ultimate Establishment choice, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, backed by Rick Perry and most other Texas GOP elected officials. DeMint’s Senate Conservative Fund, which supplied some well-timed late money to right-wing challengers like Christine O’Donnell in 2010, is backing Cruz, as is the Club for Growth, which is running independent ads. The wrinkle here is that Texas has a 50% requirement for nominations, and along with the two front-runners, Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert and the sportscaster everyone loves to hate, Craig James, are in the race, and if Cruz can knock Dewhurst into a low-turnout runoff, he has a real chance to win.

In Nebraska the same assortment of right-wing forces are backing state treasurer Don Stenberg against insider favorite Attorney General Jon Bruning. A PPP poll last month showed Bruning pulling away in that one, and it’s possible Nebraska GOPers are being a tad more pragmatic than they might otherwise be because of the presence in the race of former Sen. Bob Kerrey, who is trailing badly in general election polls but does have universal name ID and access to serious money.

It’s Wisconsin that’s most fascinating, in part because Democrats do have a solid shot of winning the general election with Rep. Tammy Baldwin, and in part because the “Establishment” candidate, former Gov. Tommy Thompson, is something of a national celebrity as a relic of those days when “innovative” GOP governors are said to be the party’s great treasure. He faces not one but two firebrands, the best-known being semi-perennial candidate Mark Neumann, though the other, state Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, has gained considerable notoriety for his role in Wisconsin’s wars over labor rights. Thompson is leading in the polls, but could be in real trouble if one of the conservatives drops out and/or if Neumann fully deploys his great personal wealth. It will be a while before people in Wisconsin focus on this race, since the primary isn’t until August, and there are a few other fish to fry in the meantime.

These primaries matter even if they don’t significantly improve Democratic prospects for picking up seats. Some day, somehow, the U.S. Senate may have to do a bit of governing, and at that point it might be useful to have the occasional GOPers on hand who does not think of their caucus as a dog kennel for pit bulls.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.