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Tea Party Roils Republican Bid to Control Senate

Some mainstream GOP candidates might sit out 2012 races, much to the delight of incumbent Democrats.

The tea party is throwing a snag into Republican plans for a slam-dunk 2012 Senate election season, scaring off Republicans who were considered solid contenders in some states and forcing candidates in a handful of others into brutal and expensive primary fights.

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In terms of sheer numbers, control of the Senate is still the GOP's to lose. Republicans need to pick up three or four seats next year -- depending on which party wins the White House -- to take back the chamber. And Democrats have to defend 23 of the 33 seats on the ballot -- an uphill climb, at best.

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But Republican infighting will complicate the journey by making it more difficult for the party to recruit top-shelf candidates.

Against two especially fragile Democratic incumbents, Sens. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Ben Nelson of Nebraska, mainstream Republican candidates are scarce.

Indeed, the Republican primary ballot in Missouri is dominated by tea party types so far: former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman, Rep. Todd Akin and business executive John Brunner. Their pitches for the tea party vote are hurting their fund-raising ability among moderate Republicans.

And In Nebraska, the GOP primary is turning into a bloodbath as state Attorney General Jon Bruning, state Treasurer Don Stenberg, state Sen. Deb Fischer and investment adviser Pat Flynn all pitch themselves as the best tea party candidate. Bruning is a darling of the GOP establishment in Washington, but Stenberg has the support of some key hard-core conservatives.

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The GOP has done a better job of luring mainstream candidates in Florida, Michigan and Wisconsin, but those Senate hopefuls will find themselves in tough primary battles with entrenched tea party candidates.

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In Florida, the Republican establishment had hoped that Rep. Connie Mack would have already closed the deal with GOP voters. But tea partyers have labeled him not conservative enough for their palates because of his criticism of immigration proposals and his votes in Congress to raise his own pay.

In Michigan, ex-GOP Rep. Pete Hoekstra is under assault from tea party challenger Clark Durant, a former charter school CEO who is slamming Hoekstra for backing the Wall Street bailout and Alaska's "Bridge to Nowhere." Durant, who wants the U.S. to return to the gold standard, is painting Hoekstra as a big spender.

And in Wisconsin, tea partyers and the right-tilting Club for Growth are already casting former Gov. Tommy Thompson as a poster-child RINO -- Republican in name only -- for backing President Obama's health care bill, doubling spending while in office and adding 8,500 government workers to the state payroll. Never mind that Thompson was a member of President George W. Bush's Cabinet and worked tirelessly for GOP candidates for years. Sen. Jim DeMint, a tea party favorite from South Carolina, has endorsed Thompson's primary foe, former Rep. Mark Neumann, setting the stage for a bruising battle.

Add the messy challenge facing Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana and it's easy to see why establishment Republicans are dealing with a giant case of election season heartburn. It's not fatal, and there is plenty of time to find a cure. For one thing, tea party candidates who win Senate nominations can still win against Democrats in the fall.

But with Obama seeking a second term, turnout among Democrats and independents will be significantly higher in 2012 than in 2010, when the tea party came into power. A handful of less-prepared candidates with limited reach across the political spectrum could turn a seemingly sure thing into something else for Republicans.

If nothing else, the tea party's approach to the campaign is putting a limp into what looked like a GOP cakewalk.

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