WASHINGTON — Mark the first round down, shakily, for Republican incumbents and party establishment favorites.
With one race in Ohio yet to be settled, tea party-backed challengers and other outsiders were shut out in competitive House and Senate primaries across three states on Tuesday, the busiest night so far in an election season of optimism for Republicans.
While some of Tuesday night’s Republican primary winners struggled to prevail — former Indiana Sen. Dan Coats’ comeback bid advanced with 40 percent of the vote in a five-way race — the results renewed a debate about the clout of the insurgents in the remaining primaries and on elections this fall.
Primaries aside, Republicans cheered Wednesday when Wisconsin Rep. David Obey, a leading liberal and chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, announced he would retire. GOP officials said the departure opens the way for them to win a seat he has held since 1969, and claimed the veteran lawmaker had been pushed to the exits by the prospect of possible defeat this fall.
Obey was characteristically blunt in reply: “I’ve won 25 elections. Does anybody think I don’t know how to win another one?”
Six months before the midterm elections, and with the country trying to shake off the effects of a deep recession, polls show a disaffected electorate, angry at incumbents and highly skeptical of government’s ability to solve their problems. As a result, even Democrats concede Republicans are in line to make gains this fall, when 36 seats in the Senate and all 435 in the House are on the ballot.
“The big question is whether the tea party is a tempest in a teapot. Do they have the organizational capabilities to compete with the Republicans?” said John Feehery, who advised former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and is a Republican strategist.
“They’re not organized and it’s unclear to me whether they are going to be a force that is going to challenge the more establishment Republicans in primaries,” he added.
In the Senate, both parties seemed eager to begin the fall campaign.
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, who chairs the Republican campaign committee, sought to shift the focus from Coats’ modest triumph over primary rivals. The race in the fall “will not be about Dan Coats,” he said. “It will be about Brad Ellsworth, who voted for a health care program that 65 percent of Hoosiers are against.”
Ellsworth will be on the ballot as Coats’ Democratic rival.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee announced the arrival of the fall campaign with a video that lumped Coats with former Bush administration official Rob Portman, who won the Republican Senate primary in Ohio and will run against Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher.
“President Obama and Democrats in Congress are fighting for comprehensive financial reform. Meanwhile, what did the Republicans do? They nominated a Wall Street lobbyist and one of the biggest Wall Street cheerleaders they could find,” the video says.
Republicans recruited Coats, a former lobbyist, to run months ago, when they were looking for a challenger to Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh. Bayh later announced his retirement.
Coats’ nearest primary rival, Marlin Stutzman, was a tea party favorite who also gained support from a political organization run by South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint.
“Senator DeMint is a conservative Republican senator. I’m a conservative Republican senator and proud of it,” Cornyn said. “But I also recognize that people as conservative as I am may not be elected in some parts of the country,” he added.
DeMint also has taken sides in a competitive primary in Kentucky, as well as other states.
In the House, Republican leaders were quick to praise the voters who backed the losers in Tuesday’s primaries, and said they would work for their support in the fall.
“They were a big factor last night in Ohio and Indiana, and they helped swell our vote” totals, said Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas, who chairs the National Republican Campaign Committee. Turnout was modest in most cases, although it appeared Republicans generally had less of a fall-off than Democrats.
“We got the candidates that we wanted,” Sessions said. For the voters who backed losing challengers, he said Republicans “will continue to offer a message that is well within their wheelhouse,” including calls to rein in federal spending.
Democrats viewed the same primary results differently.
“One message was loud and clear last night. The DC establishment Republican candidates faced intense opposition,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, who heads the Democratic campaign committee.
“They may have emerged but they emerged by the skin of their teeth and in many cases with lots of battle scars.”
Among those Van Hollen cited were Jim Renacci, backed by party officials as their favorite to challenge first-term Democratic Rep. John Boccieri of Ohio in the fall. He won with 49 percent of the vote in a four-way race.
Another Republican embraced by Republican leaders, Bob Gibbs, is ahead of his leading rival, Fred Dailey, by 160 votes, and a recount is expected. The winner will take on Ohio Democratic Rep. Zach Space, whom Republican officials long ago identified as a target for the fall.
Among incumbents fending off challengers, Republican Reps. Dan Burton and Mark Souder of Indiana; Howard Coble of North Carolina, and Democratic Rep. Larry Kissel of North Carolina won renomination.
Sessions predicted Republicans would take away 10 Democratic-held seats this fall in the three states.
“I don’t know where he learned his math,” said Van Hollen.