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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.

The race between McConnell and Grimes promises to be one of the most expensive of the midterm campaign. It will pit Grimes’ call to replace the man Democrats have called “Senator Gridlock” in Washington against the unpopularity of the Obama administration in the conservative, coal-rich state.

McConnell’s pitch relies heavily on his potential status as the next majority leader, while casting the 35-year-old Democrat as simply another vote to keep President Barack Obama’s party in control of the chamber.

Republicans need a net gain of six seats in November to reclaim majority status for the first time since 2007. If they do so and McConnell succeeds, he would be in line to replace Nevada Democrat Harry Reid as majority leader.

In Georgia, David Perdue, a millionaire former business executive, won the most votes to claim a spot in the July runoff against Jack Kingston, a Savannah-area congressman. Perdue benefited from his status a newcomer to politics, his deep pockets and his famous family — he is the cousin of a former governor.

Karen Handel, the former secretary of state, came in third; behind her were the most conservative candidates, Paul Broun and Phil Gingrey, both members of Congress. The seat was open due to the retirement of Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss.

Kingston’s early missteps — he suggested schoolchildren should work for their lunches — were smoothed by a pivotal endorsement from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The eventual Republican winner will face Michelle Nunn, who easily won the Democratic primary. The political novice who also has a famous family name — her father is the still-popular former Senator Sam Nunn — faces an uphill climb in November, but she hopes to take advantage of demographics that are shifting the red state toward purple. Georgia and Kentucky are widely seen Democrats’ only chances to pick up a Republican-held seat in the fall.

To the west in Oregon, Republicans were buoyed by the victory of Monica Wehby, a pediatric neurosurgeon, who was seen as the candidate with the most potential to challenge first-term Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley.

In Pennsylvania, wealthy businessman Tom Wolf secured the Democratic nomination to face off against Republican Tom Corbett, considered one of the nation’s most vulnerable sitting governors.

Rep. Bill Shuster, a key committee chairman, was expected to prevail in his own primary fight, while on the Democratic side, a comeback attempt by former Rep. Marjorie Margolies fell well short in an open-seat race. Margolies, who lost her Philadelphia-area congressional seat in 1994 after casting a decisive vote to pass President Bill Clinton’s budget plan, is now the mother-in-law of the Clintons’ only child, Chelsea.

Photo: Hyosub/Shin/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/MCT

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