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Bible Belt Republicans to rule Congress, push far-right agenda

With the walloping Republicans gave Democrats in the midterm elections, the GOP stands one Louisiana Senate runoff away from completely controlling Southern politics from the Carolinas to Texas. Only a handful of Democrats hold statewide office in the rest of the Old Confederacy.

The results put Southern Republicans at the forefront in Washington — from Senate Majority Leader-in-waiting Mitch McConnell of Kentucky to a host of new committee chairmen. Those leaders and the rank-and-file behind them will set the Capitol Hill agenda and continue molding the GOP’s identity heading into 2016.

In statehouses, consolidated Republican power affords the opportunity to advance conservative causes from charter schools and private school vouchers to expanding the tax breaks and incentive programs that define Republican economic policy. The outcome also assures that much of the South, at least for now, will remain steadfast in its refusal to participate in President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul.

“I think these new leaders can help drive the conservative movement” at all levels, said Louisiana Republican Party Chairman Roger Villere, echoing the celebrations of Republican leaders and activists across the region.

Republicans widely have acknowledged that the party now has to prove it can govern. But one-party rule invariably means internal squabbles. Republican White House hopefuls in particular must court Southern Republicans who are more strident than the wider electorate on issues ranging from immigration to abortion and the broader debate over the government’s role — and how to pay for it.

“The Republican presidential nomination will run through the South,” said Ferrell Guillory, a Southern politics expert based at the University of North Carolina. “As Mitt Romney found (in 2012), that … makes it harder to build a national coalition once you are the nominee.”

Even with the South’s established Republican bent, the midterm vote yielded a stark outcome. Besides McConnell’s wide margin, Republicans knocked off North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan and Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor. In Louisiana, Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy is the heavy favorite to defeat Sen. Mary Landrieu in a Dec. 6 runoff.

Republicans reclaimed the governor’s mansion in Arkansas and held an open Senate seat in Georgia that Democrats targeted aggressively.

In January, the GOP will control every governor’s office, the majority of U.S. Senate seats, nearly every majority-white congressional district and both state legislative chambers in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas and Texas. Landrieu and Florida Sen. Bill Nelson are the only officials keeping their states from the list.

At the northern periphery of the South, Kentucky’s Legislature remains divided, and Democratic governors in Kentucky and West Virginia are in their final terms.

In Washington, Senate Republicans haven’t parceled out leadership assignments, but Southerners figure prominently among would-be major committee chairmen: Mississippi’s Thad Cochran (Appropriations); Alabama’s Jeff Sessions (Budget) and Richard Shelby of Alabama (Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs); Bob Corker of Tennessee (Foreign Relations); Richard Burr of North Carolina (Intelligence); Lamar Alexander of Tennessee (Health, Education, Labor and Pensions); Johnny Isakson of Georgia (Veterans Affairs).

In the House, Georgia Rep. Tom Price could end up chairing the Budget Committee. Louisiana’s Steve Scalise already won a promotion to majority whip, Republicans’ No. 3 post in the chamber. Georgia’s Rob Woodall chairs the Republican Study Committee, the GOP’s ultra-conservative arm.

The regional differences in the GOP could make it more difficult for McConnell to deliver on his declaration that “just because we have a two-party system doesn’t mean we have to be in perpetual conflict.”

McConnell and Obama have both said they’ll make attempts to find common ground on a range of issues. But elsewhere on election night, Sessions declared in Alabama, “Tonight the American people dramatically repudiated the policies of President Obama. … It was also a dramatic affirmation of the policies our GOP candidates.”

Sen.-elect David Perdue of Georgia struck a similar chord: “Georgia made it loud and clear … that we are going to stop the failed policies of President Obama and Sen. Harry Reid.”

The region also is home to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, both presidential hopefuls and tea party favorites who have strengthened their absolute approaches, particularly on budget deals.

In Louisiana, Villere rejected the notion that Southerners could complicate Republican policies and electoral fortunes in the long-term. “Whether it was the old Southern Democrats or Republicans now, we’ve pushed the liberal wings of the parties for a long time,” Villere said. “I think it’s good for the party and for the country.”

News Guide: Races that will decide U.S. Senate control

While Democrats now hold control of the U.S. Senate, this fall’s election has the potential to shift that leadership to the GOP.

Republicans will take control if they manage a net gain of six Senate seats.

Among the 36 seats on the ballot, seven are held by Democrats in states won by Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in 2012.

A look at what’s happening in six competitive Senate races where a change in party is possible, and where that change could help decide which party ends up leading the Senate during the next Congress.

NORTH CAROLINA

On the Ballot: Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, an incumbent elected to her first term in 2008; Republican Thom Tillis, the North Carolina House speaker in his first run for statewide office.

In the Bank: Hagan may be one of the most vulnerable incumbent Democrats but had raised roughly $11 million and was sitting on $8.6 million as of mid-April. Tillis has raised almost $3.3 million, including a $250,000 personal loan, and has just over $1 million in the bank.

On the Stump: Hagan recently has accused Tillis of denying the existence of climate change, and she calls the regulation of greenhouse gases key to protecting the environment. Tillis says the question is whether humans are causing global warming and suggested Hagan and President Barack Obama are using “false science” to promote a “war on coal” that would damage the economy.

On the Air: Hagan ran a radio ad before the GOP primary May 6 reminding voters that Tillis approved severance pay for two former legislative aides who had inappropriate relationships with lobbyists. “Our tax dollars, bailing out the indiscretions of Thom Tillis’ staff. Those may be values, but they’re not North Carolina’s,” the ad said. Tillis responded by accusing Hagan and a political action committee supporting Senate Democrats of trying to interfere in the primary. “Don’t be fooled by Harry Reid,” the ad said. Reid, a Nevada Democrat, is the Senate majority leader.

ARKANSAS

On the Ballot: Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, an two-term incumbent first elected in 2002; U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton, a freshman congressman from south Arkansas.

In the Bank: Pryor, the only Democrat in the state’s congressional delegation, had raised nearly $6.9 million in his re-election bid and had more than $4.1 million in cash through April 30. Cotton, who launched his Senate bid last August, had raised nearly $5.4 million and had almost $2.4 million in the bank.

On the Stump: Last month, Pryor and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., toured an Arkansas community hit by a deadly tornado and criticized Cotton’s vote against disaster aid for the Northeast following Superstorm Sandy. Cotton has focused on trying to tie Pryor to Obama, who is deeply unpopular in Arkansas.

On the Air: Pryor has spent the spring focusing on Medicare and Social Security, airing television spots that criticize Cotton for supporting changes to the programs that he argues would hurt older people. Cotton has aired ads aimed at introducing himself to the state, with his most recent spot featuring the newlywed congressman’s wife in his hometown of Dardanelle.

ALASKA

On the Ballot: Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, a former Anchorage mayor seeking his second term; Republicans Joe Miller, Dan Sullivan and Mead Treadwell are running in the state’s August primary.

In the Bank: Begich had raised more than $4.6 million and had $2.8 million on hand at the end of March. Sullivan, who most recently served as Alaska’s natural resources commissioner and is the best funded of the potential GOP challengers, had raised more than $2.6 million and held close to $2 million in the bank.

On the Stump: Sullivan and Treadwell spoken out last week against Obama’s proposed greenhouse gas regulations, with Treadwell saying it was an attempt to impose a change on Alaskans without a full debate in Congress. Begich has recently opened field offices in the small towns of Bethel, Ketchikan and Dillingham, something he says shows an unprecedented commitment to the state’s rural areas.

On the Air: Begich and Sullivan are talking to each other in their TV ads about each other’s ads. In one, Begich says a steel plant featured in a Sullivan spot has more business because of his work as a senator; Begich then suggests other such places where Sullivan could shoot an ad. In a response, Sullivan replied “I’m not a career politician like Mark, but I thought I’d return the favor” and asks him to explain votes he says mostly line up with Obama’s policies.

KENTUCKY

On the Ballot: Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, elected to his first term in 1984; Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Kentucky secretary of state, who is making her second run for statewide office.

In the Bank: McConnell, the longest-serving senator in Kentucky history and a prime target for Democrats this year, had raised close to $12 million through the end of April and was sitting on $10.1 million. Grimes had raised more than $8 million and had close to $4.9 million in the bank.

On the Stump: Obama’s recent announcement of stricter standards for greenhouse gas emissions has given McConnell more ammunition in Kentucky, one of the nation’s top coal producers. Grimes has also attacked the new rules and again tried to portray herself as independent of Obama, who has lost by a wide margin every time he has appeared on the ballot in Kentucky.

On the air: Grimes is running a TV ad aimed at military voters, an influential bloc of the electorate in a state that’s home to Fort Knox and Fort Campbell. The ad promotes a Kentucky law, championed by Grimes, that allows military and other overseas citizens to register to vote online. McConnell’s most recent ad featured U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., praising his credentials as a conservative.  

GEORGIA

On the Ballot: Democrat Michelle Nunn, an Atlanta nonprofit executive and daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn; Republican U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, from Savannah, and David Perdue, a former corporate CEO in his first bid for office, meet in a July 22 runoff.

In the bank: Nunn had hauled in $6.6 million through April 30 and had almost $3.7 million on hand, an impressive total for a first-time candidate and a reflection of the hopes of national Democrats that she can pull an upset. Going into the primary, Kingston had raised more than $5.6 million and had almost $1.3 million saved, while Perdue had taken in about $4.3 million, a figure that includes about $2.6 million of his personal fortune through loans and contributions.

On the Stump: Kingston has assembled a litany of endorsements from tea party figures and vanquished rivals Karen Handel and Phil Gingrey, arguing he is uniting the state’s conservatives. Perdue tells voters at every stop the federal debt is the nation’s biggest problem and any sitting member of Congress helped create it. Nunn, meanwhile, quietly continues a campaign built around community events and is treading lightly when asked about Obama’s health care overhaul and the new greenhouse gas rules.

On the Air: After a busy primary on television, all three candidates are currently off the air.

IOWA

On the Ballot: Democratic U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley, a four-term congressman elected in 2006; Republican Joni Ernst, an Iowa state senator and Iraq war veteran making her first run for statewide office.

In the Bank: Braley was viewed as an early favorite to replace retiring Democratic U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin and had raised almost $5.9 million, with $2.3 million in the bank, as of mid-May. Ernst has raised almost $1.2 million, but was left with roughly $100,000 in her accounts after sailing through a five-way primary on June 3.

On the Stump: With no primary competition, Braley has been reaching out to general election voters for more than a year, promoting support for minimum wage increase and recommending fixes to the Affordable Care Act. Ernst has been short on specific proposals, focusing her rhetoric on attacking Obama and Braley. She has taken to referring to the health care bill as “Bruce Braley’s Obamacare.”

On the Air: Ernst has already run the campaign ad of the year, in which she talked about her background castrating hogs on the farm as proof she would cut federal spending. In his first ad after the primary, Braley attacked Ernst for failing to write any legislation to cut spending in Iowa following her election to the state Senate in 2010.

Plenty in play: Races to watch in 2014

The irritation voters feel today might be the six-year itch that has plagued many second-term presidents and their political parties. Or maybe it’s an itch to scratch the majority out of the U.S. House.

Early primaries in 2014 may reveal how the high-stakes midterm elections will look. Voters in November will decide majorities in the U.S. House, the U.S. Senate and 36 governorships, including Wisconsin’s.

A look at key races beyond the Badger State:

For governor

• Arkansas has an open race, with Democrat Mike Beebe leaving office. Democratic Rep. Mike Ross is running and, on the GOP side, the candidates are Rep. Asa Hutchinson, state Rep. Debra Hobbs and businessman Curtis Coleman.

• Florida is preparing for a battle between incumbent Republican Rick Scott, who is widely unpopular but has vast wealth, and Democrat Charlie Crist, who is widely popular but has some baggage. He served as governor when he was a Republican and endorsed right-wing initiatives, including an anti-gay marriage amendment. Crist has since apologized for that.

• Maine Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican, is expected to face two challengers on Election Day — Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, who came out as gay in 2013, and independent Eliot Cutler. In 2010, LePage won another three-way race because of a split Democratic vote.

• Pennsylvania has at least eight Democrats —  including state Treasurer Rob McCord, Rep. Allyson Schwartz, businessman Tom Wolf and former state environmental protection official Katie McGinty — lining up to take on Republican Tom Corbett. 

• Texas Gov. Rick Perry is not seeking re-election, which means the state is wide open. And there’s a historic battle shaping up. On the GOP side, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has raised more than $20 million. On the Democratic side, state Sen. Wendy Davis, who gained national fame with a 13-hour filibuster against new abortion restrictions, has the backing of EMILY’s List. And, for the first time in Texas, two women are at the top of a party ticket. Democratic state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte is running for lieutenant governor.

For the Senate

Voters will elect 33 U.S. senators on Nov. 4. Democrats currently hold a 55–45 majority, but will be defending 21 seats in the fall. Still, the big story right now is the number of Republican incumbents facing primary challenges from the party’s right wing.

Georgia Republicans are scrambling to run for the Senate seat held by two-termer Saxby Chambliss. At least eight have announced for the primary, including former Secretary of State Karen Handel, who influenced Susan G. Komen Foundation’s decision to cut funding to Planned Parenthood. Others in the GOP primary include U.S. Reps. Paul Brown, Phil Gingrey, Jack Kingston and businessman David Perdue. The Democratic candidate will be nonprofit executive Michelle Nunn.

Kansas Republican Pat Roberts, now serving a third term, faces a primary challenge from Milton Wolf, who is attacking Roberts for initially supporting the nomination of Kathleen Sebelius as Health and Human Services Secretary. Roberts has more recently called for Sebelius to resign, but the primary may still be a battle over Obamacare involving two of the program’s opponents.

Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell, running for a sixth term, has low approval ratings and faces a primary challenge from businessman Matt Bevin. The winner faces a costly general election race against Democratic Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes.

Mississippi Republican Thad Cochran will seek a seventh term, but before a general election he must face tea party candidate Chris McDaniel.

North Carolina Democrat Kay Hagan won her first term when the state went for Barack Obama in 2008. The state went for Mitt Romney in 2012, and now Hagan is seen as vulnerable. On the GOP side, state House Speaker Thom Tillis and the Rev. Mark Harris are running in the primary.

South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham, who worked with Democrats to draft comprehensive immigration reform, faces a primary fight in his quest for a third term. He faces state Sen. Lee Bright, businessman Richard Cash and Nancy Mace, the first woman to graduate from The Citadel military college.

Until recently, Wyoming Republican Mike Enzi, who is in his third term, faced a primary challenge for his seat from political commentator Liz Cheney, the daughter of the former vice president. Cheney had been showing off her right-wing credentials in a high-profile feud with her out sister Mary over same-sex marriage. In early January, Cheney announced she was giving up the fight, citing family health reasons.

Alaska Republicans are lining up to challenge incumbent Democrat Mark Begich, including Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, former state natural resources director Dan Sullivan and tea partier Joe Miller.

Democrats in the Hawaii primary include U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, appointed by the governor to succeed the late Daniel Inouye, and U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, who Inouye had wanted for his successor. The seat is considered safe for Democrats, but Republican Linda Lingle, a former governor, may run.

For the House

Since 1921, the midterm elections in a president’s second term have brought big losses — an average of 29 House seats — for the White House’s party. Voters’ irritation has been dubbed the “six-year itch” and the exception was in Bill Clinton’s second term.

But Democratic optimists stress that the six-year itch may not apply to the current administration, because the White House already had a miserable midterm in the president’s second year in office and polls show voters far more dissatisfied with Congress than Barack Obama.

There are other factors to consider, including the fact that redistricting has created more safe seats for parties and incumbents. In a recent study, “Monopoly Politics 2014,” the non-partisan Fair Vote said it could project the outcome of 373 congressional races because of the crafting of safe districts and a winner-take-all system.

“The outcomes of those 373 races are effectively predetermined, regardless of national partisan tilt in 2014 or the quality of challenger candidates,” said Fair Vote, which has an near perfect accuracy rate for prior elections. “Only in the case of an incumbent retirement, scandal or extreme party wave are any of these projections likely to be incorrect.”

The group projected the election of 210 Republicans and 163 Democrats in 2014. It has not made projections for 62 seats.

Sen. Kay Hagan comes out for marriage equality

U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, a Democrat from North Carolina, joins a growing list of Democratic senators to announce support for marriage equality.

Hagan, in a statement, said, “I know there are strong feelings on both sides, and I have a great deal of respect for their opinions. But after much thought and prayer on my part this is where I am today. I know all our families do not look alike. We all want the same thing for our families. We want happiness, we want health, prosperity, a bright future for our children and grandchildren. After conversations I’ve had with family members, with people I go to church with and with North Carolinians from all walks of life, I’ve come to my own personal conclusion that we should not tell people who they can love, or who they can marry. It’s time to move forward with this issue.”

The U.S. Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments today on the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which bars the U.S. government from recognizing the legal marriages of gays and lesbians.

On March 26, the high court heard oral arguments on Proposition 8, the voter-approved constitutional amendment that brought same-sex marriages to a halt in California and defined marriage as the union of a man and a woman.

The court is expected to decide the cases in late June.

When DOMA passed in 1996, the Senate vote was 86-14 in favor of the legislation. The U.S. House vote was 342–67.

Since then, a number of those who voted for the legislation, as well as the president who signed it, have said they now disagree with DOMA. And a number have endorsed marriage equality.