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US parties tap candidates for crucial Senate races

May 21, 2014

WASHINGTON (AP) — Two women easily won the Democratic nomination for the Senate in marquee primary votes in Georgia and Kentucky, states where the party hopes to pick off Republican seats, blunt an opposition surge nationwide and keep President Barack Obama’s legislative agenda nominally alive for his final two years in office.

Obama has struggled to guide legislation, from immigration to gun control, through Congress since Republicans swept into the majority in the House of Representatives in 2010. The Republicans need to pick up six seats in the 100-member Senate in November elections to hold control in both houses, giving them the power to shut down Obama’s legislative initiatives. Democrats have virtually no chance of taking back the House.

Democrats are contending with Obama’s low popularity and the historic pattern of a president’s party generally losing seats in midterm elections. Republicans are making Obama and his troubled health care overhaul the focus of their campaigns.

The primaries are critical for Republicans, who saw an opportunity to win the Senate slip away in 2010 after party voters repeatedly picked candidates backed by the tea party movement. Many of those candidates then turned out to be too radically conservative to prevail in the general election.

This time, Republican Party leaders and their supporters in the business community are determined to support establishment-backed conservatives in primaries against tea party challengers. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell turned in a strong showing in Kentucky with about 60 percent of the Republican vote against a well-financed tea party candidate. Tuesday’s vote was noteworthy because that is where the tea party made its mark four years ago by sweeping Rand Paul into the Senate over an establishment candidate favored by McConnell.

In November, McConnell will face Alison Lundergran Grimes, a state official and the daughter of a long-time Democratic Party leader. Polls show them in a tight contest in the November general election.

McConnell, a five-term Senator and the embodiment of the Republican establishment, said he would use his power to check Obama’s agenda. “Make me the majority leader and Kentucky will lead America,” he said in an appeal to home state pride at a victory rally.

In Georgia, Michelle Nunn, a non-profit CEO, won the primary Tuesday for the Senate seat long held by her father, Sam Nunn, and now occupied by retiring Republican Saxby Chambliss. Her opponent will be decided in a July 22 runoff between the top two finishers in the seven-candidate Republican race.

The race for the Republican Senate nomination in Georgia was fiercely expensive — $10 million had been spent on television commercials through last week. Businessman David Perdue, who cast himself as an outsider, and U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, who drew support from the party establishment, took the top two spots, finishing ahead of several candidates favored by the tea party movement.

Among the Republicans’ top targets is the southern state of Arkansas, where the Democratic incumbent, Mark Pryor, won his party’s nomination Tuesday. He will face congressman Tom Cotton, who won the Republican nomination.

In Oregon, Monica Wehby, a physician, won the Republican nomination to oppose Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley in a race that Republican strategists hope can become more competitive as the year unfolds.

On the busiest day so far this year on the U.S. political calendar, there were also gubernatorial primaries in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Arkansas, Oregon and Idaho.

In Pennsylvania, Chelsea Clinton’s mother-in-law, former Rep. Marjorie Margolies, lost her bid to return to the House in a district northeast of Philadelphia, despite fundraising and other campaign help from Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

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AP Writers David Espo in Washington, Bill Barrow and Christina A. Cassidy in Atlanta and Adam Beam in Frankfort, Kentucky, contributed to this report.

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