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Posted at 3:49 PM ET, 12/14/2010

Republican candidates flood Senate primaries

By Aaron Blake

Just one month into the 2012 election cycle, the surge in contested Republican primaries that was one of the dominant storylines of the last election shows no signs of abating.

Already, primaries are forming for some of the GOP's most targeted Senate seats, including Florida, Missouri, Nebraska and Virginia.

Whether this year's primaries will prove as harmful as those in 2010 -- when weaker nominees emerged in places like Delaware and Nevada -- won't be known for quite some time. Increasingly, though, it looks like the potential is there for some damaging nominating contests.

"As much as people say they love to rally after a primary, people are angry and disappointed as they should be," said Connecticut GOP Chairman Chris Healy, who presided over his own Senate primary this year. "My biggest disappointment in myself was trying to unsuccessfully avoid primaries."

The national GOP tried to do the same thing in 2010, endorsing or otherwise giving a nod to several candidates in hopes of avoiding competitive primaries and marshaling resources for November.

It failed in many places then, and it looks like an iffy strategy for 2012 too, as GOPwins at the ballot box has translated into candidates falling all over themselves to get into races against vulnerable Democratic incumbents.

Florida state Senate President Mike Haridopolos and ougoing Sen. George LeMieux are already clashing, as are former Sen. George Allen and Prince William County Supervisor Corey Stewart in Virginia. Former Sen. Jim Talent could set up a heavyweight battle with state Treasurer Sarah Steelman if he runs for Senate in Missouri, and Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning looks like he will face a real primary before he can get to Sen. Ben Nelson (D).

The Nebraska situation is emblematic of what the GOP went through in 2010.

Even though Bruning starts out with an edge, he doesn't enter the race as the "800-pound gorilla" like Gov. Dave Heineman would have. (Heineman turned the race down shortly after the midterm elections.)

"There are people that are hoping that a candidate captivates them more than Jon does," said former state party chairman David Kramer.

Former Senate candidate Pat Flynn is already in the race and state GOP sources expect state Treasurer Don Stenberg, who ran unsuccessfully against Sen. Ben Nelson (D) in 2000, to run, meaning Bruning could be in for wide-open primary.

Another state GOP insider said Stenberg, who took 36 percent in the three-person 2006 primary to face Nelson, is going to get in; "Absolutely: there's no doubt in my mind," the source said.

Florida is shaping up similarly. Without a prohibitive frontrunner like former Gov. Jeb Bush, it looks like the GOP primary could get big and unruly. Of course, that's better than the last time Nelson was up, in 2006. In that race, Rep. Katherine Harris easily cleared the GOP field but gave the party little hope of beating Nelson in the general election.

"There's nothing wrong with a battle of ideas," Haridopolos said. "That's what the primaries are for."

Added LeMieux: "I'm sure they'll be a primary." (He also said he is "very close" to a decision.)

Republicans could also face primaries in a number of other Democratic-held states they are targeting with Connecticut and Montana leading that list.

In Montana, businessman and former lieutenant governor candidate Steve Daines is already in the race against Sen. Jon Tester (D), but the big name is Rep. Dennis Rehberg (R-Mont.).

In Connecticut, the top two candidates in the 2010 primary -- former wrestling executive Linda McMahon and former Rep. Rob Simmons -- could both run again, as could 2010 governor nominee Tom Foley. Given a wide-open race featuring Sen. Joe Lieberman (I) and whoever wins the Democratic primary, it could be an attractive campaign for an ambitious Republican looking to win in a blue state.

McMahon is meeting with National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas), and Healy said he expects Simmons and Foley to weigh the race as well.

Healy said the rough 2010 primary was "definitely a factor" in the GOP losing the open seat race to Sen.-elect Richard Blumenthal, who was unopposed for the Democratic nomination.

The contests listed above account for the vast majority of the Republicans' top pickup opportunities in 2012. That means, for good or ill, primaries will have an effect on the GOP's ability to make gains.

The national GOP appears to have learned a lesson when it comes to getting involved in primaries. After backing several establishment candidates early in the process in the 2010 election, the committee took a notably neutral view of the Missouri race right after Steelman got in.

At the same time, party higher-ups have complained that the tea party movement delivered several Republican nominees with severe liabilities who went on to lose.

Republicans must guard against that happening again -- particularly in a cycle in which they could very well win back the majority -- while simultaneously keeping the tea party wing happy and, more importantly, engaged.

It's a delicate dance, to say the least.

By Aaron Blake  | December 14, 2010; 3:49 PM ET
Categories:  Republican Party, Senate  
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