WASHINGTON (AP) — The Republican Party continues its disciplined march toward an impressive lineup of candidates this fall, when it hopes to wrest the Senate majority from Democrats and control both chambers of Congress during President Barack Obama's final two years.
Tuesday's primaries produced another batch of Senate nominees who seem about as promising as party leaders could have hoped for. There's still plenty of time for stumbles, of course. But so far, the GOP appears to be sidestepping the type of gaffe-prone and fiercely ideological candidates who blundered into excruciating losses in 2010 and 2012.
As they did Tuesday in Iowa, Republican activists have accomplished this by blurring the differences between tea party enthusiasts and the party's corporate and "country club" wings. Tea partyers are largely justified in saying they're winning the larger ideological struggle by pulling the entire party rightward. But establishment Republicans are happy to be called "nominee."
Suspenseful or not, Tuesday's results confirmed that Republicans will have top-tier nominees in South Dakota and Montana, where long-time Democratic senators are departing or have already left.
Former Gov. Mike Rounds' primary win in South Dakota puts him in a category with Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, who won the GOP Senate nomination last month in West Virginia. Both are well-established politicians favored to pick up Democratic-held Senate seats in states Obama lost badly. Businessman Rick Weiland was unopposed in South Dakota's Democratic Senate primary.
Republicans need six new seats overall to control the Senate.
Rep. Steve Daines' win in Montana on Tuesday gives Republicans strong hopes for yet another Democratic-held seat in a state that Obama lost. Daines will face Sen. John Walsh, a former lieutenant governor appointed in February to replace six-term Democratic Sen. Max Baucus, now ambassador to China.
Walsh will enjoy some benefits of incumbency. But he's not nearly as well-known as Baucus. And since Montana has only one House seat, Daines already has been elected statewide to Congress.
The Republicans' impressive streak is hardly accidental. Waking from their 2010 and 2012 slumbers, mainstream Republicans this year steered money, smart advisers and key endorsements to carefully recruited candidates. Sometimes brutally, they brushed aside ideological purists who tend to thrill tea partyers but repel moderates.
They spent heavily in Kentucky to batter tea party upstart Matt Bevin. In Colorado they cut a backroom deal to clear the way for Rep. Cory Gardner, a prized Senate recruit.
Iowa is the latest example of such pragmatic efforts. Although state Sen. Joni Ernst is largely unproven, Republicans of all stripes settled on her as their best hope to win retiring Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin's seat. Groups ranging in ideology from the Chamber of Commerce to tea party chapters, and individuals as diverse as Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney, put aside differences to rally around Ernst.
She's an Iraq war veteran best known for her TV ad boasting of castrating hogs as a farm girl. She held off businessman Mark Jacobs and will face Rep. Bruce Braley, the Democratic nominee.
Hours after polls closed Tuesday, the day's noisiest Senate primary remained too close to call. In Mississippi, six-term Republican Sen. Thad Cochran faced tea party-backed challenger Chris McDaniel. Whoever prevails will be favored this fall over Democratic nominee Travis Childers.
The GOP now has solid nominees — backed in most cases by establishment Republicans and hard-core conservatives alike — for five Democratic-held seats in states the president lost: South Dakota, Montana, West Virginia, North Carolina and Arkansas. It's unclear whether they can achieve the same feat in Louisiana and Alaska, whose primaries lie ahead.
The Republicans' track record is equally impressive in several states, besides Iowa, that Obama carried. They have nominated or cleared the path for seasoned, widely supported Senate candidates in Oregon, New Hampshire, Colorado and Virginia.
To be sure, Democratic senators seek re-election in those four states, and Republicans probably face uphill climbs. Still, they can force Democrats to spend money in places they'd rather not, and they broaden the GOP's image as a party that can compete almost anywhere.
These Republican successes shouldn't obscure the scrappy and seasoned nature of Democratic senators battling to hold their seats, even in states where Obama and his health care law are unpopular. Sens. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Begich of Alaska, Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Mark Warner of Virginia have shown they can win in toss-up or Republican-leaning states.
These senators are campaigning hard, and it's possible all of them will survive and keep their party in control of the Senate. But Republicans thus far are doing almost everything they can to push these contests to the limit. And that gives them multiple paths to the six net seats they need for the majority.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Charles Babington covers Congress and politics for The Associated Press.