Those of us who love to curl in front of our computers, with popcorn and Twizzlers in hand, to observe internecine political battles — primary fights among Republicans or Democrats — lost a potential doozy earlier this month when Liz Cheney ended her challenge to GOP Sen. Mike Enzi in Wyoming.
But we were rescued this week, following the decision by Oklahoma GOP Sen. Tom Coburn, who wasn’t up until 2016, to resign his seat at the end of this year. That immediately brought two-term Rep. James Lankford into the race … and hours later, hints from freshman Rep. Jim Bridenstine that he’s going to run as well. And that has all the makings of, once again, another Republican family feud between the conservative and the very conservative wing of the party. Lankford is a conservative, but not enough of one to satisfy the Senate Conservatives Fund, which said it could not support him in a Senate race. They cited his “past votes to increase the debt limit, raise taxes, and fund Obamacare,” according to a statement by SCF executive director Matt Hoskins. And he’s close with House Speaker John Boehner, which probably doesn’t help with conservatives. Many Tea Party supporters are excited about a candidacy by Bridenstine, who proudly reminds people that his first vote in Congress after being sworn in was to oppose Boehner for another term as speaker.
Other candidates may get in the Republican contest as well, including state House Speaker T.W. Shannon. For his part, Rep. Tom Cole said he will not run.
As for the Democrats, well, not much is being said. Coburn’s announcement that he’s quitting at the end of the year caught many by surprise. Still, no Dem has been elected to a Senate seat in Oklahoma since David Boren won a third term in 1990.
(There’s more about the Oklahoma Senate race in this week’s Political Junkie podcast, which features a conversation with Tulsa World political reporter Randy Krehbiel.)
Since political junkies live for lists, here’s my list of the Top Ten Senate primaries for 2014, arranged alphabetically:
Alaska (R) — Aug. 26
First term Democratic Sen. Mark Begich has been on the GOP hit list the moment his narrow victory over the late Ted Stevens was settled in 2008. At the time Stevens was 85 years old, under indictment during the campaign (and found guilty of corruption charges with just days to go before the election) — and yet he lost by fewer than 4,000 votes. That shows how difficult it is for a Democrat to win a Senate seat in the 49th state (last previous: Mike Gravel in 1974). But while the affable Begich has shown a willingness to break from his party’s orthodoxy — presumably helping himself with independents — Republicans are beating themselves up to see who will emerge. Best known is Joe Miller, who (with the enthusiastic support of Sarah Palin) defeated Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the 2010 primary but then surprisingly lost in the general election when she mounted a successful write-in campaign. He says if elected he will be a Republican in the Ted Cruz/Mike Lee/Rand Paul mold. Miller faces Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell and former natural resources commissioner Dan Sullivan in the primary.
Georgia (R) — May 20
Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R), a conservative who has been critical of the Tea Party wing of his party in recent years, is retiring. A nasty multi-candidate Republicans battle could open the door, perhaps, to a Democratic win by Michelle Nunn. Nunn, the daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn, is making her first bid for public office, and while a run for the Senate may seem like a giant leap, it may prove less quixotic if the GOP candidates continue to beat each other up. Running are three members of the House — Jack Kingston, a conservative; Phil Gingrey, a strong conservative; and Paul Broun, a very very strong conservative — plus former Secretary of State Karen Handel. There is much uncertainty in this primary except for one thing: the party establishment is scared that Broun (and perhaps Gingrey as well) may be too conservative and too controversial to survive in November, even against a novice like Nunn. Kingston, who some in the GOP leadership think would be the strongest candidate, made the mistake of saying he would work to make changes in Obamacare … which, according to Broun, means he’s in favor of keeping the law. Another GOP candidate, businessman David Perdue, has joined the field and has put together a reportedly smart campaign team. A first cousin of former Gov. Sonny Perdue, he has not run for office before. While there are demographic changes going on here, it’s still a solidly Republican state. But the further the GOP moves to the right the more it tests whether a Republican victory is a sure thing.
Hawaii (D) — Aug. 9
This is the only Democratic primary on the list. And while the seat is all but certain to stay in Democratic hands — no Republican has won a Senate race here since Hiram Fong in 1970 — there’s no telling what’s going to happen in the primary. Unlike with the GOP, the differences here are less ideological and more about pique, ambition and disappointment. Shortly before he died, the immensely popular Sen. Daniel Inouye told Gov. Neil Abercrombie, his fellow Democrat, that he wanted his successor to be Rep. Colleen Hanabusa. Abercrombie had his own ideas; he chose instead his lt. gov., Brian Schatz — at 41, considerably younger than the 62-year old congresswoman — to replace Inouye. Hanabusa, along with members of Inouye’s family, including his widow, called it a betrayal. And so the primary is more personal than anything else. But it does underscore the continuing tensions between Japanese Americans who have ruled Hawaii for years — Inouye, Hanabusa, etc. — and the younger and whiter upstarts, like Abercrombie and Schatz.
Kansas (R) — Aug. 5
The argument against Sen. Pat Roberts (R) may be less about his politics than his age; a solid conservative, he will be 78 in April, in Congress since 1981, and that, say some in the Tea Party, is long enough. Milton Wolf, a 42-year old radiologist and a distant cousin of President Obama — no doubt a plus in Kansas — is challenging Roberts, whom he calls a “career politician.” Wolf has been endorsed by the Senate Conservatives Fund.
Kentucky (R) — May 20
There are Democrats who see five-term Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) as a right-winger whose only purpose is to stymie the goals of Obama and block him at every opportunity. At the same time, there are conservatives who see him as a politics-as-usual RINO who is more interested in maintaining power and making deals with Harry Reid than standing up for conservatism. So while McConnell faces a potentially serious threat in November from Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, he first has to deal with Tea Party businessman Matt Bevin. Bevin has money and seems willing to spend it. He has the endorsement of FreedomWorks and the Senate Conservatives Fund. McConnell allies insist he will not be caught napping, as Dick Lugar was in Indiana in 2012. As usual, he has a huge war chest and is willing to do whatever it takes to win. Some Republicans wondered if Bevin’s challenge would pull McConnell too far to the right to recover in time for the general. But as of now the campaign of the Republican Senate leader seems confident that they will weather the storm.
Mississippi (R) — June 3
Thad Cochran (R), Mississippi’s first Republican senator since Reconstruction, has been in the Senate since 1979, after six years in the House. At 76 years of age, he represents a bygone era for lawmakers, where bringing home the bacon led to re-election. With a state pretty much devastated by the ravages of Hurricane Katrina, being chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee didn’t hurt. But earmarks is not the language of the new GOP. Many were convinced that Cochran, already facing a primary challenge from state Sen. Chris McDaniel, would pack it in this year. But he’s running and has rallied party bigwigs behind him. An upset, however, is not ruled out; Cochran has not been extended in recent years. No Democrat has won a Senate seat here since 1982 — when the loser, by the way, was some lawyer named Haley Barbour. And no Mississippi senator has been denied renomination since 1942.
Oklahoma (R) special — June 24
South Carolina (R) — June 10
Lindsay Graham may be one of the leading critics of Obama in the Senate, taking him on for the disastrous health care website rollout and the tragedy in Benghazi. But that hasn’t stopped four Republicans from challenging him in the primary, with all four arguing that he is not a true conservative. Graham’s latest heresy was to criticize House Republicans for bringing about the government shutdown last October because they couldn’t halt the funding of the Affordable Care Act — a tactic Graham thought was a waste of time. He is also, they claim, on the wrong side of the immigration issue. And he is too much of a foreign policy interventionist to suit them. Graham’s advantage at this moment is that none of his opponents have much money or are well known; the only one who holds office is state Sen. Lee Bright. The goal of the opposition: keep Graham to under 50% in the primary and hope they can coalesce behind one candidate in the runoff.
Tennessee (R) — Aug. 7
Lamar Alexander, the former governor and Cabinet secretary, is seeking a third term. He is, at best, a moderate conservative. He has not been shy about taking on the Tea Party. He is being challenged by state Rep. Joe Carr, who doesn’t appear, at this point, to have the money or the campaign abilities to threaten the incumbent.
Texas (R) — March 4
John Cornyn (R) made the wrong bet in 2012 when he backed Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst to succeed the retiring Kay Bailey Hutchison. Little did he know that a Tea Party uprising was in the making that would give the nomination to Ted Cruz. Now Cornyn, the Republican Senate whip, is getting a primary challenge of his own. Rep. Steve Stockman, a controversial conservative who lasted for one term in the 1990s but who returned to the House in 2013, has challenged Cornyn. Unlike some of the others on the list, this one may not be especially competitive. Stockman hasn’t raised much money at all, and he continues to make some eye-popping comments, such as, “Democrats worship abortion with the same fervor the Canaanites worshipped Molech” and pass out bumper stickers that say, “If babies had guns, they wouldn’t be aborted.” There may be some unease about Cornyn among conservatives but Stockman may not be the best vehicle to express it.
Obit. George Wortley, a New York Republican who served in the House for four terms in the 1980s, died Tuesday (Jan. 21) at age 87. Active in Syracuse business and politics for years, Wortley made his first bid for office in 1976, when he lost to Rep. James Hanley (D). When Hanley retired in 1980, Wortley ran again and won in a landslide. But he had the fight of his life in 1982, when redistricting merged his seat with that of another Republican, Gary Lee. Lee proved to be a far better campaigner, but the more favorable district lines saved Wortley; he won by just 354 votes. A loyal Reagan conservative, Wortley went through another nail-biter in 1986, getting by Democrat Rosemary Pooler by 939 votes. He decided to retire in 1988. Sensing an opening, Pooler ran again but got clobbered by Wortley’s chosen successor, the much more moderate Jim Walsh.
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ON THE CALENDAR:
Jan. 28 — State of the Union address.
Feb. 7 — Debt ceiling limit deadline.
March 4 — Texas primary.
March 11 — Special election in Florida’s 13th CD to fill the seat left vacant by the October death of Rep. C.W. Bill Young (R).
March 18 — Illinois primary.
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This Day In Political History: Former Associate Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, dies of heart failure at age 84. A longtime champion of civil rights who argued the winning side in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, Marshall was appointed to the court by President Lyndon Johnson in 1967. One of the most liberal members of the court, he retired for health reasons in 1991 and was replaced by another black justice of completely different ideology, Clarence Thomas, appointed by President George H.W. Bush (Jan. 24, 1993).
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