Red-State Senators Face Activist Challengers From Within : It's All Politics Emboldened by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, and funded by organizations advocating small government, GOP activists are battling party incumbents for Senate seats in six states — and counting. They're even going after the Senate minority leader.
NPR logo Red-State Senators Face Activist Challengers From Within

Red-State Senators Face Activist Challengers From Within

Re-election trouble is brewing for longtime Republican senators in deep-red states, from South Carolina to Wyoming. And the trouble is from within.

The GOP's restive Tea Party and libertarian wings, energized by their titular leader, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, and funded in part by starve-government groups like the Club for Growth, are waging 2014 Senate primary challenges in six states — and counting.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is under attack, as are Mike Enzi of Wyoming and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. All were rated among the most conservative in the U.S. Senate last year by the American Conservative Union.

Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the Senate's second-ranking Republican, may join the list of the challenged, but so far he has no viable primary opponent.

As the fallout from the recent government shutdown and default crisis settles, here's our look at the state of play in Senate races that a Republican is likely to win. But just which Republican is the question.

Six Red-State Senators Facing GOP Challenges

  • Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell

    Timothy D. Easley/AP
    Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell
    Timothy D. Easley/AP

    Senate Minority Leader McConnell, 71, a five-term incumbent, won praise from establishment Republicans for forging a deal with Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., that ended the partial government shutdown and avoided a national debt default. He has collected endorsements from the National Right to Life Committee and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. And he has amassed a campaign war chest of about $10 million. But his approval ratings at home are anemic, and he's fighting off a primary challenge from conservative businessman Matt Bevin, endorsed by the Senate Conservatives Fund. The fund describes itself as "a political action committee dedicated to electing true conservatives to the United States Senate."

    McConnell could emerge from the primary weakened as he goes into what is shaping up to be a tough challenge from Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes. Surveys show a potentially close general election race, with Lundergan Grimes, the secretary of state, polling particularly strongly among women.

  • Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts

    Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan. J. Scott Applewhite/AP hide caption

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    J. Scott Applewhite/AP

    Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan.

    J. Scott Applewhite/AP

    As Jennifer Duffy at the Cook Political Report wrote recently, "Roberts is not the most conservative member of his party, but he's hardly the most moderate." Roberts, 77, has been in Congress for more than three decades and would be seeking his fourth Senate term.

    Primary challenger Milton Wolf, a diagnostic radiologist and distant cousin of President Obama's, has seized on Roberts' longevity and introduces himself as "a doctor, not a politician." He has characterized Obamacare as "immoral" and has referred to himself as "the next Ted Cruz." Kansas City Star political columnist Steve Kraske wrote recently: "Republicans are on such sure ground in Kansas that Wolf can compare himself to the controversial Cruz and get away with it. Wolf is eager to out-conservative Roberts, and this is his attempt to do it."

  • Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran

    Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
    Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss.
    Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

    Cochran, who has served six terms, hasn't committed to running for re-election, but he already has a primary challenger. State Sen. Chris McDaniel, endorsed by the Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund, will seek his party's nomination. His announcement came a day after Cochran, 76, voted for the McConnell-Reid compromise that ended the shutdown and averted a debt default. "I've got 17 trillion reasons not to compromise," McDaniel said.

    A pro-McDaniel ad released by the Club for Growth describes the candidate as a "constitutional conservative with backbone." At the end of June, Cochran had just over $773,000 on hand, one of the lowest amounts reported by senators up for re-election next year.

  • South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham

    Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty Images
    Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
    Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty Images

    Three Republicans are challenging two-termer Graham, 58, who was flush with about $7 million in cash on hand at the end of September. The State newspaper reported that his war chest "is 17 times the $443,304" that Graham's three announced GOP challengers ... combined have to spend." The challengers are state Sen. Lee Bright, businessman Richard Cash and Nancy Mace, author of In The Company Of Men: A Woman At The Citadel. Graham is viewed approvingly by just over half of the state's Republican voters but is expected at this point to emerge with little problem from the primary.

  • Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander

    Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. Alex Wong/Getty Images hide caption

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    Alex Wong/Getty Images

    Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.

    Alex Wong/Getty Images

    Conservative state Rep. Joe Carr announced in August that he would abandon his effort to unseat Republican U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais and instead challenge Alexander. He hasn't gotten much traction, despite Tea Party antipathy toward the two-term incumbent senator for his work with Democrats on issues including student loan rates. Alexander, 73, the state's former governor, also served as education secretary in the George H.W. Bush administration.

  • Wyoming Sen. Mike Enzi

    Ben Neary/AP
    Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo.
    Ben Neary/AP

    Enzi, 69, has stepped up his fundraising efforts after primary challenger Liz Cheney, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, got in the race. She hauled in more than $1 million in the past reporting period. He trailed with $850,000 — but it was a far better showing than the $100,000 he raised in the previous reporting period.

    Polls show that Enzi, a popular incumbent with a solid conservative record, continues to lead Cheney comfortably and has gotten strong support from state GOP leaders as well as the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee.