By Michael A. Memoli and Lisa Mascaro, Tribune Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — Incumbent Republicans cruised to victory in key primary elections Tuesday, offering fresh evidence that the party’s establishment wing has successfully neutralized outside conservative groups that have vexed congressional leaders since the rise of the Tea Party.
In Kentucky, Senator Mitch McConnell, the party’s leader in the Senate, easily won renomination for a sixth term over challenger Matt Bevin, who had hoped to tap into Tea Party activists’ distrust of GOP leaders in Washington. McConnell was leading the Louisville businessman 60 percent to 36 percent late Tuesday with nearly all of the state’s precincts reporting.
McConnell now faces what will probably be a more significant challenge in the general election from Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, who glided to the Democratic nomination.
In Idaho, as in Kentucky, an effort by conservative groups to unseat an establishment ally of House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-OH) fizzled. Rep. Mike Simpson defeated his Tea-Party-funded challenger, Bryan Smith, with help from a late infusion of outside spending from groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Another key GOP primary was the open Senate seat in Georgia, where the crowded field ensured a July runoff. The most conservative candidates, however, failed to advance.
Tuesday’s balloting in six states marked the busiest primary election date yet this year, and the latest to produce disappointing results for Tea Party forces. Candidate Ben Sasse’s victory in last week’s Nebraska Senate primary stands as one of the few Tea Party successes this year, but came in an open-seat contest in which multiple candidates had claimed the conservative mantle.
Despite the early successes in primaries, Republican leaders were reluctant to openly celebrate their victory over the conservative groups they’ve criticized in the past. Boehner told reporters Tuesday that the Tea Party had “brought great energy to our political process.”
“There’s not that big a difference between what you all call the tea party and your average conservative Republican,” he said.
McConnell’s ability to outmaneuver his challenger was emblematic of GOP leaders’ success thus far in curtailing the influence of conservative groups. Considered one of his party’s most astute political strategists, he saw firsthand the Tea Party at its strongest in the 2010 campaign, when Rand Paul easily defeated McConnell’s handpicked GOP candidate to win Kentucky’s other Senate seat.