Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

Early primaries will gauge tea party support

Tea party politicians are struggling to retain influence it wielded four years ago

Voters in three states headed to the polls Tuesday in early primaries being carefully watched for any indication as to which direction the political wind is blowing, especially in regards to the state of Republican support. 

Pollsters say the primaries, some of the first in the 2014 midterm race, could set the stage for the next four months, providing a litmus test for how strong the tea party wing of the Republican Party remains, and showcasing what issues – like Obamacare and jobs – really bring the base out to the polls.

Voting is taking place in three states: Indiana, Ohio, and North Carolina.

In Ohio, House Speaker John Boehner is being challenged by three tea party-leaning Republicans. He’s expected to cruise to victory, but if the margin of his win is lower than expected it could be a sign of how willing people are to support relatively unknown, untested tea party candidates.

But the most contentious race is in North Carolina. State House Speaker Thom Tillis is running for Senate and appears to have a slight edge over his tea party rivals. Whoever wins that race will take on Democratic Senator Kay Hagan, widely tipped to be one of the most vulnerable Democrats in the U.S. That race, experts say, will be a big test of whether Republicans can take back the Senate.

“This is a prime opportunity to have a Republican takeover, so that’s why you have a very competitive primary,” said Randy Gutermuth, the chief operating officer at Republican public affairs group American Viewpoint.

Running against Tillis are tea party favorite Greg Brannon and evangelical minister Mark Harris. Tillis needs 40 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff. He may squeak by, but some are saying the fact he’s not easily winning is proof that the Republican Party is split.

“The interesting thing about the split is that on a lot of the big issues the candidates essentially agree,” said Dan Judy, the vice president of conservative polling firm North Star opinions. “They essentially hold the same position. It’s more about tactical issues,” like whether or not the government shutdown was a good idea.

Tillis’ margin of victory will be a sign, Judy says, not only of whether North Carolinians are sick of those more radical tea party tactics, but whether Americans in general are.  

Prominent conservatives like Rand Paul have lined up behind Greg Brannon. If Brannon can’t manage to make it into a runoff with Tillis, some say that will be a rebuke to people like Paul, and the tea party in general.

Boehner and Tillis’ races aren’t the only ones that will gauge the relative power of the tea party, a fringe that four years ago seemed to be in ascendance but has since seen its influence wane.

Establishment-backed Republican Senate candidates also lead opinion polls in two May 20 contests: in Kentucky, where Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell is favored over a tea party challenger, and in Georgia, where a crowded primary makes a runoff likely but the most conservative tea party candidates are not among the poll leaders.

Republican campaign officials also hope for a primary win on May 20 in Oregon by first-time candidate Monica Wehby, a pediatric neurosurgeon with the sort of moderate image that might be successful in a Democratic-leaning state.

But despite the tea party challenges, Republican leaders are anxious to limit the kind of divisive primary fights that produced weak general election candidates and helped cost them winnable Senate seats in 2010 and 2012.

So election watchers predict that no matter what the outcome is, the Republican Party will eventually fall in line to present a united front against their Democratic challengers.

“Primaries are often ugly affairs,” said Judy. “But the party will typically unite behind the nominee. What will really matter in the end is the quality of the candidate.”

With wire services

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