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How the Calendar Will Influence GOP Senate Primaries

Cornyn's primary is first on the 2014 calendar. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Cornyn's primary is first on the 2014 calendar. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Stories about Republican primaries are all the rage, and we’re still nearly three months from the first actual election. But in all of the analysis of vulnerable senators, voting scorecards and outside groups, it’s important to remember the calendar and how primary results could affect subsequent races.

It’s possible that a snowball effect could work for or against tea-party-aligned groups next year, depending on the outcomes.

The first Senate primary contest will be March 4 in Texas. Rep. Steve Stockman’s last-minute challenge to GOP Sen. John Cornyn got plenty of media attention. But unless Stockman can find a pot of gold (worth at least $10 million or so) at the end of a rainbow, Cornyn will cruise to victory.

After Texas, I expect the first round of stories to be: The Establishment Fights Back.

The next incumbent senator facing a primary is Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky on May 20. Gauging Matt Bevin’s credibility and McConnell’s vulnerability in a primary is not easy. But up to this point, most observers believe McConnell will survive.

If that happens, the second round of stories is likely to be: Establishment Dominant, Tea Party Dormant.

So right out of the gate, it’s very possible that two of the highest ranking Republicans in the Senate — McConnell and Cornyn — win their primaries and hand the antiestablishment crowd two high-profile losses.

On one hand, two early losses could put a dent in tea party enthusiasm to defeat incumbent Republicans later in the year. But on the other hand, Cornyn and McConnell victories could be somewhat of a mirage for the establishment, considering some groups, such as the Club for Growth, may not be involved in either early contest.

The next senator on the primary docket will be Mississippi’s Thad Cochran on June 3. Right now, this is the only race where many of the conservative outside groups are aligned, in this case in favor of insurgent state Sen. Chris McDaniel. The race is just getting started, but it should be a very competitive contest, even though Cochran starts as a beloved figure.

If the long-time senator loses his primary, it’s likely that some media outlets (particularly those that that lean to the left) will return to their “Tea Party Takes Over the GOP” narrative.

The race in Mississippi might be one of the most important in the country, depending on how the early contests play out as well. For example, if Cornyn and McConnell and Cochran are all victorious, it would be very difficult for outside groups to generate much interest in defeating Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander or Pat Roberts of Kansas later in the year.

But if McConnell loses, that will likely embolden outside groups heading into the Mississippi race. And no matter what happens in Kentucky, a Cochran loss would likely cause antiestablishment groups to take a fresh look at challenges to Alexander, Roberts, and South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham.

Graham’s June 10 primary comes so soon after Cochran on June 3 that outside groups will have to be engaged in the South Carolina race before knowing Cochran’s fate in Mississippi. If Graham fails to get 50 percent in the initial race against three challengers, groups will have until the June 24 runoff to try to make an impact.

After South Carolina, there is almost six weeks until the next primary with an incumbent. The Kansas primary is on Aug. 5, Tennessee on Aug. 7, and Wyoming on Aug. 19.

Wyoming is somewhat of a misfit race, not only because it is last on the calendar but the GOP race between Sen. Mike Enzi and Liz Cheney doesn’t fit neatly into the establishment vs. antiestablishment narrative. Anyone with the last name of Cheney isn’t exactly a political outsider in a Republican contest.

Overall, it is also important to note that there are other critical GOP primaries in open seats or challenger races, interspersed with the incumbent contests.

Republicans will face off in North Carolina on May 6 and in Nebraska on May 13, after Cornyn’s race in Texas and before McConnell in Kentucky. But it doesn’t look like either will have a fundamental impact on the early primary narrative.

For example in Nebraska, former Midland University President Ben Sasse has consolidated support from Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund. But former state Treasurer Shane Osborn is obviously not an incumbent nor such an entrenched establishment figure that defeating him doesn’t exactly send a message. On the other hand, a Sasse loss would say more about the supposed influence of outside groups.

In North Carolina, state House Speaker Thom Tillis is the clear establishment favorite, but antiestablishment support is divided between two candidates: physician Greg Brannon and pastor Mark Harris. And the race is likely to go to a July 15 runoff, so the final result won’t be known until well after the Cochran contest.

The primary contest that could envelop most of the summer could be Georgia. The initial race is on May 20, the same day as Kentucky’s (and Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson’s primary, for that matter). But the Georgia runoff is set for July 22. If Rep. Paul Broun makes the runoff and the GOP establishment is concerned that his nomination would put the seat in peril, that could be the primary point of discussion, not any incumbent senator.

Correction: 11:38 a.m.

An earlier version of this post had an incorrect date for the Georgia runoff. It is set for July 22.

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