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In Primary Races, Republicans Fight Back Tea Party


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Let's start the program today with some politics. Winners in Tuesday's primary elections are looking forward to the vote in the fall. The losers are taking stock. Six states went to the polls yesterday - Kentucky, Georgia, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Idaho and Arkansas.

We wanted to hear more about the results of these elections and what they may say about the mood of the country. So we've called upon NPR politics editor Charles Mahtesian, and he is with us now. Welcome, thanks for coming up.


MARTIN: Thanks for taking the long trip upstairs. So there's an old saying that all politics is local, but in recent years there have been these wave elections - I mean, the Democratic rise in 2006, 2008 and then the Tea Party movement in 2010. So was there an overarching theme in these results?

MAHTESIAN: I think if there was a singular takeaway, it's that the Republican establishment or traditional conservatives, or however you describe them, they're finally fighting back against the Tea Party and they're winning. That was clear from the results last night, I think. And I think that's a theme that has really infused the primary season so far. It doesn't mean that the Tea Party is dead or that it's not having an impact, just that the establishment now controls the commanding heights.

MARTIN: And one good example of that is Kentucky. Early in the campaign, it looked like the incumbent senator, Mitch McConnell, who happens to be the Republican minority leader, was in trouble, but he actually won by a sizable margin. It was 60 to 35 over a Tea Party-backed opponent, Matt Bevin. And this is what Senator McConnell had to say last night.


SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: For five and a half years, the powers that be in Washington have treated the people of this state with contempt. And tonight, I have a simple message for all of them - those days are numbered.

MARTIN: What's he talking about there actually, since he was there for five and a half years, too? I mean, so - I guess, is he trying to sort of pivot to making himself more of an outsider? Is that it?

MAHTESIAN: Yeah. I think it's a little confusing when you're the most powerful Republican in Washington to be framing the fact that Washington is trampling on your state. But I think what he's trying to get at is the idea that outsiders are controlling the destiny of Kentucky, which has always been sort of a very fertile subject for politicians to mind. And I think he's also playing on anti-Washington sentiment.

Kentucky is a very red state that - where President Obama is very unpopular, Harry Reid is very unpopular. And I think that part of the strategy in Kentucky is to tie his November opponent, Alison Lundergan Grimes, to the administration. And that is, you know, one example of it in that speech.

MARTIN: Well, let's hear a little bit about his Democratic opponent, Alison Lundergan Grimes - a little bit of her victory speech now.


ALISON LUNDERGAN GRIMES: This woman, well, she's not empty dress, she's not a cheerleader...


LUDERGAN GRIMES: ...She's not a rubber stamp, she's an independent Kentucky woman that stands on her own two feet and thinks with her own head.


MARTIN: How serious a shot does she have?

MAHTESIAN: I think a very, very serious shot.

MARTIN: How come?

MAHTESIAN: Polling shows already that this is a very competitive race. And it's also worth remembering that while McConnell is a big dog in Washington, he isn't exactly wildly popular in his home state. If you look at his approval ratings, they're really rather low for somebody of his stature, for somebody who's been around for five terms. And she's a great character to run against, and in part because she's very good at the basics of retail politics. Her family is well-known in Kentucky politics.

She begins with name recognition 'cause she's won statewide. And, also, just as important, she's going to be very well-funded because of all the national Democratic money that's going to pour into that race in November. And in fact, some people are already predicting that's going to be $100 million-plus - yeah - $100 million-plus race in November.

MARTIN: Does that outside money, though - how does that play? I mean, some times in-state people resent it when they think that outsiders are trying to control affairs in their state. But it sounds to me like you're saying both sides are going to be expecting a lot of outside money.

MAHTESIAN: Right. That's a fantastic point because McConnell also addressed that very subject last night in his speech at the victory party where he talked about all the Hollywood Liberal entertainment money that's going into her campaign. So he sees it right now as an area for him to mine in the fall.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the results of Tuesday's primaries elections with NPR politics editor Charles Mahtesian. So let's go to Georgia now. We're seeing a potential second-generation Senate family in candidate Michelle Nunn. Her father, Sam Nunn, left the Senate in 1997. But besides that well-known name, what else does she bring to the table?

MAHTESIAN: Well, I think it's - you know, as you mentioned, that's a golden name in Georgia politics. And that's a state that's been very tough for Democrats to compete in statewide in recent years. It's a, you know - a fairly solidly Republican state, although there is - you know, there is room for improvement for Democrats. And I think Democrats see that as a perspective win largely because of the strength of Michelle Nunn. And that's why Republicans were so nervous about who they were going to nominate in this Republican primary.

MARTIN: Why were they nervous? It was a pretty hard-fought primary, was a not? How many candidates did they have - like five? That doesn't seem like a recipe for coalescing, you know, behind one idea. How did that turn out?

MAHTESIAN: Well, in some ways, what Republicans were worried about was that it was a recipe for disaster 'cause you had five candidates who had different regional bases. But what Republicans were - had real anxiety about was - this was - this is a seat that Republicans probably will and should take in November. But with the wrong nominee against a pretty good, top-notch, Democratic nominee, that would be under question.

And there were a couple of congressmen in that race who were sort of lightning rods and were thought to be maybe a little bit too conservative for the state. And those congressmen ended up losing. And Republicans ended up getting a couple of candidates in the run-off who are probably much better suited for a statewide race.

MARTIN: So let's go - so we've been talking about red states so far. And obviously, one of the - the subtext here is that Republicans would very much like to take back control, you know, of the Senate. And then to do that, don't they have to take over - they don't just have to maintain the states that they already own or run, but they need to take over some blue states as well. So why don't we go to Oregon. And Republicans feel like they have an opportunity there. Why don't you tell us about their candidate, Monica Wehby?

MAHTESIAN: Well, you may have heard a lot about her in recent weeks. She's this really compelling character, where she's a pediatric neurosurgeon that hasn't run before. But what's most interesting about her is she's become one of the most talked about Republican candidates of this cycle, in part, because she's captured the national Republican establishment imagination. I mean, as everybody knows, that's a party that has a real problem with women voters, has a problem with electing enough women politicians.

And so she, in many ways, addresses many of that party's needs. She also ran an ad that really caught fire. I think people really noticed. It was a very powerful, emotional ad about her work as a surgeon. And that really got her on the national radar. And the thinking is that in a state like Oregon, which is, you know, fairly solidly Democratic, it's, you know, a well-known blue state against an incumbent who's not all weak and hasn't showed that much vulnerability, you need a candidate - a nontraditional Republican candidate maybe like Monica Wehby. And I think that's why people are talking about her today.

MARTIN: What's her hook? I mean, what's her main - her main idea or platform? Is it opposition to - as a doctor - opposition to the Affordable Care Act, or what is it?

MAHTESIAN: Well, that's in some question. Some Republicans believe she wasn't conservative enough - that she wasn't strongly pro-life, that she wasn't strongly enough anti-Obamacare, that she was, you know, just not conservative enough to be the nominee. But then again, there's lots of Republican political professionals, in particular, who think that's what makes her so good for a state like Oregon.

MARTIN: There's always this question with a woman candidate whether - how she is treated by both the local media and the national media and whether her - she's evaluated in the same way that a man would be. But, you know, even having said all that, she did have some - a little flare-up of scandal trouble at the close of the primary race. Can you just tell us a little bit about it and whether that's going to continue - whether that particular storyline you think will have any resonance come fall?

MAHTESIAN: I think you're right on the money with that observation because it was in the final weeks. She was the victim of a May surprise where this oppo research was dumped on her on Friday before - on the eve of the primary about a relationship that had gone sour. And a, you know, police report that had been filed about her breaking into a former boyfriend's home.

To see something like that get dropped in the final days of a primary tells you that - a couple of things including the fact that someone is scared that this person could win. And it was pretty harsh. And I think it's occasioned a lot of conversations about the propriety of running those stories and whether it was fair to her. And obviously, Oregon voters weren't that bothered by it.

MARTIN: At least Republican voters weren't that bothered by it.

MAHTESIAN: Exactly, Republican voters, I should say.

MARTIN: And so finally, let's go to Pennsylvania for the final couple of minutes today. Republican governor Tom Corbett is seen as vulnerable. What can you tell us about Tom Wolf, the Democrat who's going to be facing him in November? And is there any larger story there. Pennsylvania's such an interesting, you know, state. It, you know - big state, a lot of people who are - you know what I mean? - the way the sort of power goes back and forth between Republican and Democrats. So tell us a little bit about it.

MAHTESIAN: Yeah, I couldn't agree more. I mean, that's a state where, you know, as you say, you've got a couple big Democratic cities on either end of the state and in the middle is, you know, very rural and small-town oriented. You know, as everybody knows who follows politics, it was once famously described as sort of Alabama with Pittsburgh and - and Philadelphia on the two ends.

And so Tom Wolf is essentially a candidate who came out of nowhere. He's a very wealthy businessman not from one of the city's power centers, from York County, which is sort of south-central part of the state. And what's really interesting about him is he was not somebody who was on the political radar yet. He came in, knocked off the Republican congress - or the Democratic congresswoman who was the front-runner at the time and won, you know, pretty handily.

And when you look at the results, it's pretty amazing the way he ran. He ran very strong in - for a candidate of his background in the urban areas but also in the suburban areas and also, I think, in the outstate areas, some of the rural counties, too. And I think he could be a very troublesome competitor for Tom Corbett in the fall.

MARTIN: Well, I know you had a late night, so thank you for coming up today. Is there anything that kind of captured your attention over the course of this. I mean, you obviously have to keep your eyes on a lot of different races. And obviously, one of the themes that we talked about at the beginning of our conversation is how kind of the establishment Republicans, who may have been kind of caught a little bit out-of-sorts in 2010, really seemed to figure out how to address the Tea Party challengers and overall seem to do very well, you know, against them. Is there anything else that kind of captured your attention this year that you want to - want us to keep an eye on as these - the general election approaches?

MAHTESIAN: I'd say there are probably two observations I made in out of all the primaries so far and particularly last night. The first is the that you spoke to, which is the idea that the Republican establishment is fighting back and winning finally. This wasn't the case in recent election cycles. The other point that I think has been largely overlooked is that, OK, so we see all those polling data out there talking about toxic levels of anti-income sentiment.

Well, the dirty little secret is nobody's lost yet. No incumbents have been downed. Most of them are going uncontested in the primaries or winning by huge landslide numbers. Very few of them are getting tough races in the primaries. So if that toxin is in the political bloodstream, you know, we're not really seeing much evidence of it yet. That might come in November, but in the party primaries so far we're not seeing it.

MARTIN: Charles Mahtesian is NPR politics editor. He was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios - took the long trip upstairs. Thank you for that. Thanks for joining us.

MAHTESIAN: Thanks, Michel. I enjoyed it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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