Incumbent Republicans appeared poised to cruise to victory in key primary elections Tuesday, offering fresh evidence that the party's establishment wing has successfully neutralized outside conservative groups that have vexed congressional leaders since the rise of the tea party.
In Kentucky, Sen. Mitch McConnell, the party's leader in the Senate, easily won renomination for a sixth term against a tea-party-backed challenger who hoped to tap into tea party activists' distrust of GOP leaders in Washington. Shortly after polls closed, the Associated Press declared McConnell the winner.
McConnell now faces what will probably be a more significant challenge in the general election from Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, who glided to the Democratic nomination Tuesday.
As in Kentucky, an effort by conservative groups to unseat an ally of House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) appeared to fizzle in Idaho. Rep. Mike Simpson was on track to defeat his tea-party-funded challenger, Bryan Smith, with help from a late infusion of outside spending from establishment groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Another key GOP primary was the open Senate seat in Georgia, but the race was not expected to produce an outright winner because the wide-open field all but guaranteed a July runoff. The most hard-right candidates, however, were not expected to advance.
Tuesday's balloting in six states marked the busiest primary election date thus far this year, and the latest to produce disappointing results for tea party forces. Candidate Ben Sasse's victory in last week's Nebraska Senate primary stands as one of the few tea party successes this year, and came in an open-seat contest where multiple candidates claimed the conservative mantle.
Despite the early successes in primaries so far, Republican leaders were reluctant to openly celebrate their victory over the outside conservative groups they've criticized in the past. Boehner told reporters Tuesday that the tea party "has brought great energy to our political process."
"There's not that big a difference between what you all call the tea party and your average conservative Republican," he said.
McConnell's successful effort to outmaneuver his challenger was emblematic of GOP leaders' success thus far in curtailing the influence of conservative groups. Considered one of his party's most astute political strategists, he saw firsthand the tea party at its strongest in the 2010 campaign, when Rand Paul easily defeated McConnell's handpicked GOP candidate to win Kentucky's other Senate seat.
Securing Paul's endorsement was the first step in McConnell's reelection bid. He also quickly and aggressively worked to highlight aspects of rival Matt Bevin's business career that put him in conflict with the tea party orthodoxy.
The race between McConnell and Grimes promises to be one of the most expensive of the midterm campaign. It will pit Grimes' call to replace the man Democrats regard as the "guardian of gridlock" in Washington against the unpopularity of the Obama administration in the conservative, coal-rich state.
McConnell's general election pitch relies heavily on his potential status as the next Senate majority leader, while casting the 35-year-old Democrat as simply another vote to keep President Obama's party in control of the chamber.
Republicans need a net gain of six seats in November to reclaim majority status in the Senate for the first time since 2007. Were they to succeed and McConnell were to defeat Grimes, he would be in line to replace Nevada Democrat Harry Reid as majority leader.
In Georgia, where Republicans want to hold onto the seat being vacated by the retirement of GOP Sen. Saxby Chambliss, party leaders headed into Tuesday's primary more confident as the most conservative candidates, Paul Broun and Phil Gingrey, trailed after early enthusiasm for their campaigns faded.
But the robust GOP field was expected to prevent any candidate from clearing the 50% threshold to win, ensuring a brutal and costly July runoff.
David Perdue, a millionaire former business executive, was expected to lead what has become a three-way contest for the two runoff spots. His challengers made an issue late in the race of his statement to a local newspaper that fixing the nation's finances would take both spending cuts and revenue increases – the latter seen as code for new taxes. Perdue's camp denies he was advocating raising taxes.
Former Secretary of State Karen Handel was trying to make a come-from-behind surge with a who's-who of conservative backers, including former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. A third candidate, Rep. Jack Kingston, who represents the Savannah area in Congress, also sought to gain ground.
Republican Party elders are hoping to nominate a more measured candidate for what is expected to be a costly general election battle against the Democratic front-runner, Michelle Nunn, daughter of the Peach State's still-popular former Sen. Sam Nunn, also a Democrat.