Who will survive? 2014's top primaries
By: Emily Schultheis
December 26, 2013 04:26 PM EST
The campaigns of 2014 will be messy long before the candidates get to the general election, with a growing number of incumbents facing primary challenges they weren’t expecting.
Republicans, who are keen on taking back the Senate, are especially concerned after two election cycles in which GOP primaries produced tea-party aligned candidates who lost winnable seats in the general election.
Will 2014 be an anti-incumbent year the way 2010 was? Or will incumbents be able to use their resources and history with their constituents to hold on? In light of those questions, here are POLITICO’s top 10 primaries to watch in 2014:
1. Kentucky Senate (May 20)
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is one of the country’s most visible politicians, and he has one of the lowest home-state approval ratings of his GOP Senate colleagues.
With the trend of conservative activist-types challenging incumbent GOPers, then, it’s no surprise that McConnell is facing a primary challenge. Activist Matt Bevin announced he’d enter the GOP primary against McConnell earlier this year and has already been aided financially and on the television airwaves by conservative outside groups.
Nobody really expects the well-funded and well-connected McConnell, an institution in Kentucky, to lose to Bevin — but he’ll have to expend a decent amount of his resources on the primary instead of saving them for a general-election fight with Democratic Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes.
2. Georgia Senate (May 20)
The Georgia GOP primary is a race that national Democrats watch with glee. It’s a free-for-all with eight declared candidates thus far, including U.S. Reps. Paul Broun, Phil Gingrey and Jack Kingston, businessman David Perdue and former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel.
It’s also one of the places Democrats say is most likely to produce 2014’s Todd Akin “legitimate rape” moment, given the propensity of certain candidates in the race to say less-than-politically-correct things (Gingrey, for example, endorsed traditional gender roles).
Whoever wins the primary will take on nonprofit CEO Michelle Nunn, daughter of longtime Georgia pol Sam Nunn, in the general election. The crazier this primary gets, the more hopeful national Democrats will be that Nunn can make a typically red seat competitive for them.
3. Hawaii Senate (Aug. 9)
Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie picked his own lieutenant governor, Brian Schatz, to succeed the late Sen. Daniel Inouye last winter instead of Inouye’s hand-picked successor, U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa. In the process, he set off what’s bound to be one of the most competitive Democratic primaries in the country.
Schatz, now an incumbent, has all the benefits of being in office, including a fundraising advantage and a team of seasoned D.C. operatives. But Hanabusa has the support of Inouye’s family and is tapping into his political network, which reaches across Hawaii.
The seat is seen as safe for Democrats, so whoever comes out of the August primary will almost certainly be the next senator from Hawaii. But given the nature of this race — between the now-incumbent senator and the protegee of a pol who was a Hawaii institution — it’s definitely one to keep an eye on this spring and summer.
4. Wyoming Senate (Aug. 19)
Sen. Mike Enzi never imagined he’d have a major primary on his hands this year. Then Liz Cheney decided she wanted his seat.
Cheney is far from a perfect candidate: she’s already had to both combat claims of carpetbagging (she’s lived with her family in Virginia and only recently returned to Wyoming) and deal with a very public family dispute with her sister, Mary Cheney, over same-sex marriage.
Polling in the race thus far has shown Enzi far ahead of the former vice president’s daughter, but Cheney’s name and connections could help make this a more competitive race.
5. Pennsylvania Governor (May 20)
Pennsylvania GOP Gov. Tom Corbett is vulnerable, and Democrats know it. No fewer than eight of them are vying for a chance to face off against Corbett in the 2014 general election, a number that could grow between now and the state’s May primary.
There are candidates from all parts of the state’s political and business world, including U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, State Treasurer Rob McCord, businessman Tom Wolf and former state environmental protection director Katie McGinty.
With Wolf’s pledge to drop $10 million on the primary, this race has the potential to be both costly and bruising for whoever becomes the eventual nominee. How nasty the primary gets could affect the outcome of the general election, too, since Corbett is hoping he’ll get to face a tired and broke Democratic nominee.
6. Mississippi Senate (June 3)
What would have been a sleeper race for six-term incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran has now become the toughest reelection battle of his Senate career. Cochran is facing a primary challenge from state Sen. Chris McDaniel, a conservative candidate who’s earned the backing of the Club for Growth, the Senate Conservatives Fund and the Madison Project.
While it’s always tough to take out an incumbent senator, McDaniel has his state legislative experience to help legitimize his candidacy, and the kind of money outside conservative groups are already spending on his behalf indicates there’s far more to come between now and primary day.
Either way, this is a reliably red seat, so whoever wins the primary will presumably be the state’s next senator.
7. Montana Senate (June 3)
National Democrats were hoping they’d have a slam-dunk, field-clearing candidate in Lt. Gov. John Walsh. Their hopes are even higher now that it’s likely Walsh will be appointed to retiring Sen. Max Baucus’s post once the latter is nominated as ambassador to China. If he’s appointed, Democrats expect Walsh can use the power of incumbency to keep the seat for another six years after the November election.
But Walsh’s two Democratic opponents, former Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger and rancher Dirk Adams, have not indicated they would exit the race. Their camps have suggested that Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock appoint someone else to the Baucus seat.
Democratic strategists expect Walsh will ultimately win the nomination whether he’s appointed to the seat or not. But in a state that’s regarded as tough terrain for them, a costly, long primary could hurt Democrats’ chances of holding the seat. Republicans, meanwhile, have coalesced around U.S. Rep. Steve Daines in his GOP primary.
8. California-17 (June 3)
Longtime Democratic Rep. Mike Honda hasn’t had to deal with a major primary challenger in a long time. But this year, he’s up against businessman and former Commerce Department official Ro Khanna, a young newcomer who has the support of several tech giants in the Silicon Valley area and has proven he can raise a significant war chest.
Honda argues that he’s served the district well, and he has strong support from the local and national Democratic establishment. But Khanna says the district needs new blood and suggests Honda doesn’t understand Silicon Valley the way Silicon Valley’s congressman should.
Given California’s top-two primary system, Honda and Khanna will likely both advance to the general election — meaning they have almost 11 months to battle it out between now and Election Day.
9. Texas Senate (March 4)
U.S. Rep. Steve Stockman shocked the political world in early December when he filed (minutes before the deadline) to run against incumbent GOP Sen. John Cornyn.
Stockman, as a sitting member of Congress who’s known on the national stage for his strident comments, will be able to pick up some grassroots support in the state. But unlike in some other states with conservative challengers to GOP incumbents, outside conservative groups aren’t rushing to support Stockman.
The Club for Growth, for instance, said it didn’t expect to get involved in this primary and praised Cornyn’s conservative record. If Stockman, who’s already got a campaign problem in his mounting ethics issues, doesn’t get outside help he’ll be much less likely to land any real hits on Cornyn.
10. Idaho-02 (May 20)
The race between incumbent Republican Rep. Mike Simpson and Club for Growth-backed attorney Bryan Smith will be the marquee establishment-versus-challenger battle on the House level.
Simpson, an ally of House Speaker John Boehner, has the backing of most of the Idaho political establishment, including Gov. Butch Otter and Sen. Mike Crapo. His race also drew GOP 2012 presidential contender Mitt Romney out of relative political retirement to endorse Simpson, a fellow Mormon, in the primary.
But Smith has enough support from key tea party-aligned groups, such as the Club for Growth, Citizens United and FreedomWorks, that Simpson can’t afford not to take him seriously. Outside groups will spend heavily on Smith’s behalf, and this could be one of the most expensive House primaries on the map.