These Republican Senators Could Face Conservative Challengers In 2016

Alex Pappas Political Reporter
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More than 20 Republican-held Senate seats will be up for election in 2016, and conservative political operatives are already looking at which GOP incumbents could be vulnerable to conservative primary challengers.

At the same time, some of these conservatives acknowledge the 2016 Senate elections may be more about protecting the senators swept into office during the tea party wave of 2010 rather than ousting other incumbents during the primaries.

Still, there are a number of Republican incumbents that might find themselves with primary challenges in 2016. This list is informed by interviews with operatives in the states and people involved with national conservative political groups.

Arizona Sen. John McCain

There aren’t many other incumbent Republican senators more unpopular with the conservative base.

McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential candidate, hasn’t yet announced whether he will run for re-election. The Arizona senator, who would be 80 years old on Election Day, recently told a reporter that he’s “leaning” toward running.

In 2010, McCain defeated conservative challenger J.D. Hayworth, a former Republican lawmaker, in the state’s primary.

An example of some conservative distaste for McCain in his state: The Maricopa County GOP has censured the lawmaker, accusing McCain of siding with Democrats on immigration, defunding Obamacare, the debt ceiling, gun rights and judicial nominees.

Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby

You might compare Alabama’s Richard Shelby to Mississippi’s Thad Cochran, a veteran Southern politician who nearly lost his primary this year after going head to head with tea partiers in the state.

Political observers in this deeply conservative state say they think Cochran’s battle with the tea party was a real eye-opener for Shelby. The lawmaker has recently emphasized his opposition to Common Core and comprehensive immigration reform, two big issues to the grassroots.

“On top of that, there are some pretty significant differences between how Cochran was positioned this cycle and how Shelby is positioned going into 2016,” says Cliff Sims, who runs the Yellowhammer News organization in the state. “A lot of Mississippians clearly felt like Cochran had lost touch with them. Shelby still visits every county in the state at least once every year — he’s done almost 2,000 town halls since he was elected to the Senate — so even though he’s been in Washington a long time, he’s maintained strong ties in the state.”

Shelby, a former Southern Democrat who switched to the Republican Party in 1994, is hardly representative of the tea party movement. A longtime appropriator, Shelby has a penchant for steering federal dollars back home and getting buildings named after himself.

But unlike Cochran, Shelby has a massive campaign war chest heading into the new cycle: nearly $18 million that could scare off potential challengers.

“He has more cash in his campaign account today than was spent in the entire Mississippi GOP primary by all candidates and groups combined,” Sims said. “I really can’t imagine anyone having a credible shot at unseating Sen. Shelby in 2016.”

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski

Lisa Murkowski, with her husband Martell, takes part in a re-enactment of her swearing-in by Vice President Joe Biden in the Old Senate Chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington

Sen. Lisa Murkowski could again be a tea party target in 2016. (REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

Murkowski was a top tea party target in 2010. And conservative grassroots nearly got her.

After challenger Joe Miller defeated the Republican incumbent in the primary that year, Murkowski organized an impressive write-in campaign, and won the general election.

Four years later, some tea partiers still want to see her gone. But for now, it’s not yet clear who could mount a serious challenge to her.

Still, pollsters acknowledge that the threat is real.

“It seems like she could potentially struggle again in a Republican primary if someone on the right decided to challenge her,” according to a recent Public Policy Polling analysis.

Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson

When Georgia’s Isakson publicly said he would run for re-election, the political website Conservative Review listed why the senator isn’t “a conservative in good standing.”

The organization, apparently trying to gin up support for a conservative alternative to challenge the senator, is criticizing Isakson for supporting Common Core, voting for taxpayer funded bailouts, scoffing at the defund effort and voting to increase the debt ceiling.

“Sen. Isakson is not a conservative,” Conservative Review spokeswoman Rachel Semmel said. “Like many in Congress who campaign on conservative talking points, or make politically expedient statements, there are things Isakson may point to in an effort to say that he is conservative, but his record tells a drastically different story.”

But Erick Erickson, a Georgia resident who runs RedState, predicted that if Isakson runs, he won’t face a “serious challenger” in the primaries.

“I was with him two weeks ago and he’s still got fire in the belly,” Erickson said. “If he really wants to run, he will and no one will oppose him.”

But Erickson is still skeptical that Isakson will actually run, theorizing that the senator could still retire before the election.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio

Sen. Marco Rubio speaks with Sen. John McCain during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill

Sen. Marco Rubio speaks with Sen. John McCain during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington Sept. 17, 2014. (REUTERS/Joshua Roberts)

Rubio says he will either run for president or for re-election in 2016, but hasn’t announced which office he will seek yet.

If he runs for Senate, it’s possible the Florida Republican could face a conservative primary challenger. Though elected during the tea party wave of 2010, Rubio irked some in the base by pushing a comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2013.

During the immigration debate, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin called for Rubio to face a primary challenge. That same year, former Rep. Allen West even suggested in a radio interview that he could challenge Rubio.

But since then, Rubio has worked to repair his relationship with the conservative base. A sign that it would be difficult for a conservative challenger to take on Rubio in a Senate race: the well-funded Club for Growth has already endorsed his re-election.

New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte

Like she did with Rubio, Sarah Palin called for this New Hampshire senator to face a Republican challenger during the immigration debate. “I think that they should be challenged,” Palin said in a 2013 radio interview. “I don’t have a problem with heated debates and contested primaries where they have to answer to constituents regarding their flip-flopping on such a fundamental position as amnesty for illegal immigrants.”

Ayotte supported the Gang of Eight immigration bill in 2013.

But in New Hampshire, Republicans say she’s in a very strong position to win the Republican nomination.

“If they couldn’t find serious primary opposition to Scott Brown, they certainly can’t find one in a year where Kelly is running for re-election,” says Ryan Williams, a Republican strategist who has long worked in New Hampshire races.

“On top of that, while conservatives may not agree with everything Kelly does, she’s very well-respected in the state, she’s accessible, people like her, the party is very happy with her, and nobody who could potentially pose any threat to her would even think about running,” he said.

A recent PPP survey indicates Ayotte is the most popular politician in the state.

Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt

Another senator fingered by conservatives as a potential primary target is Roy Blunt, a former member of the GOP House leadership who was elected to the Senate in 2010.

“Conservatives and conservitarians would love to see a strong, viable challenger take on Roy Blunt,” says Bill Hennessy, the co-founder of the St. Louis Tea Party Coalition. “He’s reliably conservative on pro-life, somewhat on Second Amendment, and open to best offer on everything else. Blunt has been a disaster on Internet taxes, privacy issues and cronyism.”

“The problem is finding a viable candidate who’s not in someone’s pocket. A viable candidate needs name recognition and access to capital,” Hennessy elaborated. “Then, they need the burning desire to run and win. Personally, my favorite choice to take on Blunt is State Sen. John Lamping, but I don’t think he’d run in 2016 because of family obligations. Still, Lamping is not only brilliant and solidly conservative, he gets along with everyone, he stands his ground on important issues and against powerful interests, and I’m pretty sure he could raise the money.”

Added Hennessy, “I think there will be numerous Blunt challengers in 2016. I just don’t know how viable they’ll be. Being right on principles and issues is only the beginning. We need to find people who combine solid philosophy with charm, stamina, will, name, money, looks, and luck. Then we have to block less-viable candidates who would siphon conservative votes.”

Blunt is already busy fundraising, something that could deter a viable primary opponent.

North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr

Sen. Richard Burr speaks during the Reuters Health Summit in Washington

Sen. Richard Burr is up for re-election in 2016. (REUTERS/Stelios Varias)

The North Carolina senator got on the bad side of some conservatives by memorably speaking out against the Ted Cruz-Mike Lee defund Obamacare strategy, which led to the shutdown of the government, as the “dumbest idea.”

He’s hardly a hero of national Republicans. Burr, who says he is running for re-election, has just a 58 percent score from the conservative Heritage Action.

As one veteran North Carolina operative told TheDC: “I’m sure there will be somebody who challenges him, but Richard Burr is an effective and pragmatic conservative who has a record of getting things done. So it would be a very steep climb.”

One well-known commodity who could run against Burr is Greg Brannon, the libertarian-leaning Republican who ran for the Senate this year but lost to opponent Thom Tillis. But Brannon has baggage of his own that surfaced during this year’s primary that could make a challenge difficult.

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