McConnell Faces Challenge From The Right In Tuesday Midterms

On Tuesday, voters in six states head to the polls for primary elections. NPR's Charles Mahtesian gives NPR's Lynn Neary a preview of what to expect.

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LYNN NEARY, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary. Primary races are picking up ahead of the midterm elections this fall. On Tuesday, voters in six states will go to the polls, making it one of the most important primary election days of the year.

Among the races to watch is a Tea Party challenge to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. To give us a lay of the land is NPR political editor Charlie Mahtesian. Charlie, welcome to the program.

CHARLES MAHTESIAN, BYLINE: Hi, Lynn.

NEARY: So I guess the most closely watched primary coming up this Tuesday is the race in Kentucky, where Senator McConnell has been fighting off a challenge from the right. So tell us more about that.

MAHTESIAN: Well, of all the primary elections this year, the McConnell race is probably the most important and also the most highly anticipated because in some ways, Senator McConnell is the most powerful Republican in Washington. And so now he's matched up against a Tea Party challenger named Matt Bevin who is a businessman and political newcomer.

McConnell represents the face of the Republican establishment in a time of serious unrest at the conservative grassroots level. And Kentucky, remember, is the state where Rand Paul made his significant victory in 2010 with Tea Party support.

NEARY: Senator McConnell has raised a lot of money, $20 million. Is he worried?

MAHTESIAN: Well, he's less worried than he was before. The most recent poll shows Senator McConnell has a fairly comfortable lead over Bevin. And I think it would be considered a pretty ground-rattling upset if Bevin was somehow able to pull this off. One of McConnell's problems in Kentucky has been that his approval ratings aren't great.

But what's happened is that Senator McConnell has run a very focused and a nearly flawless campaign. Bevin, on the other hand, as a political newcomer, has made some rookie mistakes. And against an astute and sharp-elbowed politician like Mitch McConnell, you really can't afford any errors like that.

NEARY: Kentucky isn't the only important Senate race. What else should we be keeping our eye on?

MAHTESIAN: Well, the Georgia and the Oregon Republican primaries are the other big Senate races to follow. The Georgia primary is a big, sloppy, messy affair that features a pretty crowded Republican field and is taking place against the backdrop of lots of Republican angst about the quality of the candidate the party is going to nominate.

And that anxiety is because Democrats are all but certain to nominate Michelle Nunn, who's the daughter of former senator Sam Nunn. And she's widely considered to be a top-notch candidate. Now in Oregon, the primary field is a lot smaller - just two candidates there. One of them is state repetitive Jason Conger, who went from homelessness to Harvard Law School.

And the other is Dr. Monica Wehby who is a pediatric neurosurgeon. There are some conservatives who think Dr. Wehby isn't quite conservative enough, especially on abortion. But she's captured the imagination of some in the state and also some in the national Republican establishment who think a woman candidate with her profile is exactly what they need to win in a blue state like Oregon.

NEARY: So what about House elections? Polls are suggesting voters are in a pretty cranky mood. Should incumbents be worried?

MAHTESIAN: Well, so far, only a handful of states have held their primaries, but not a single incumbent has lost yet. And most of them are winning pretty comfortably or they're simply uncontested. So that tells you a little something about the environment right now.

Granted, we're just talking about primary elections here, meaning that congressmen are only going in front of their own party voters right now. I think we'll probably have a much clearer picture by the end of June when probably more than half of the states will have voted.

NEARY: And let's talk a little bit about Idaho. Now there's an election that's getting some attention belatedly, I think, and maybe for all the wrong reasons.

MAHTESIAN: Well, there's one reason it's getting all this attention and that is Wednesday's Governors' debate. It was a doozy. Two longshot, fringe candidates were included in this debate. And basically, these were two guys letting it rip, talking about Armageddon, political correctness, discrimination against motorcycle clubs.

What's lost here is that the top candidates for governor, incumbent Governor Butch otter and the state senator who's challenging him, are engaged in an unusually competitive race. And that took a backseat on Wednesday.

NEARY: NPR political editor Charlie Mahtesian. So good to have you with us, Charlie. Thanks.

MAHTESIAN: Thanks, Lynn.

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