House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s stunning defeat in the June 10 Virginia Republican Primary to Tea Party-aligned newcomer Dave Bratt had a number of political observers wondering if a new, stronger wave of conservatism was taking over the GOP, particularly in the “red states” of the South.
However, a significant number of Southern GOP incumbents are pushing back challenges from other Tea Party-supported candidates this election, including South Carolina’s own Sen. Lindsey Graham. Graham cruised to victory earlier this month against six challengers who each tried to claim the Tea Party mantle.
Clemson political science professor Dave Woodard cites the power of incumbency by Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi to get voters who historically vote for Democrats, particularly African American voters, to cross over and cast their ballots in the GOP primary for him over challenger Chris McDaniel, who pushed Cochran in a tight race.
“It’s the devil you know vs. the devil you don’t know,” Woodard said. “You know Thad Cochran. You know Lindsey Graham. You may have some qualms about them, but you don’t know anything about these people challenging them, except you fear they maybe Tea Party kind of extremists that may discount what you’re trying to do.”
Woodard says Lindsey Graham’s win in the South Carolina GOP primary is another example of using the power of incumbency to draw a coalition of GOP voters coupled with crossover Democratic voters.
Woodard surmised that Republicans see a huge opportunity to take a majority in the U.S. Senate this November, while retaining their advantage in the House. He said Republicans believe their best strategy is to first make sure GOP incumbents are in a position to be re-elected.
Woodard cites a number of examples where GOP incumbents outlasted strong tea party-led challenges in the South. “McConnell won in Kentucky, Cornyn won in Texas, Lindsey Graham won, and Lamar Alexander (of Tennessee) won. All of those established Republicans survived through these primaries with challengers.”
“I think Republicans have sort of wised up since 2010, and don’t want to take the prospect of losing the Senate off the table by putting in somebody that might lose in November,” he said. “I think they took the safe path.”
33 Senate seats are up for election this year. Of those, three are up for special elections (including Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina). Among the 2014 races, currently, there are 21 held by Democrats and 15 held by Republicans. Democrats currently hold a 53-45 majority in the Senate. The two independent senators, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine, caucus with the Democrats.
Woodard said it’s too early to tell if the Republican Party will or can try to broaden the party’s base by openly courting those Democratic voters who crossed over to vote in recent GOP primaries.