Republicans on Tuesday will cast votes in the two states where they are most vulnerable heading into November’s elections — Georgia and Kentucky — where primaries could leave the GOP champions bruised as they prepare to face strong female Democrats.
“If the Democrats win in either Kentucky or Georgia, it will be next to impossible for Republicans to take the Senate in 2014,” said Ford O'Connell, a Republican Party strategist. “That is the bottom line.”
Arkansas, Idaho, Oregon and Pennsylvania also have primaries Tuesday that will set the lineups for a series of general election showdowns.
But it’s the two Republican-held Senate seats that are getting the most attention because of the stakes involved and the bitter turn the primaries have taken in the five-way Georgia contest, and the Kentucky battle, which pits top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell against tea party-backed Matt Bevin.
The latest Real Clear Politics average of polls shows Mr. McConnell has survived divisive attacks and holds a 20-plus point lead over Mr. Bevin. The attacks have hurt, though, and he runs neck and neck in polls with likely Democratic opponent Alison Lundergan Grimes.
But analysts said Mr. McConnell should emerge from the race stronger, and Ms. Grimes will have to figure out how to respond.
“She will be tested like she has never been tested. She will have to show she is ready for the big time. That part of the equation she has control over and should be able to meet the challenge,” said Scott Lasley, political science professor at Western Kentucky University.
“The other question is one that she doesn’t have as much control over and that is how to run for a federal office in Kentucky without getting pulled down by national Democrats like President Obama, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi,” Mr. Lasley said. “That is a tougher challenge and one that she will not have full control over.”
Ted Jackson, a veteran Republican Party strategist in Kentucky, said he thinks Ms. Grimes is at “her high mark today” and that she has a tough task of convincing voters that they should replace the most powerful Senate Republican with a freshman lawmaker.
“She is a blank slate today, and nobody knows anything about her,” Mr. Jackson said. “I think Grimes ultimately is not going to wear well with the voters. She is a 35-year-old young person with no experience. Secretary of state is not a job. I mean, anybody can be secretary of state.”
Democrats, though, said Mrs. Grimes has overcome a lackluster campaign rollout and that she has done what she has needed to do at this point in the campaign: kept her head down and raised money.
Ms. Grimes has raised nearly $8.1 million and has close to $4.9 million cash on hand, according to the Center for Responsive Politics breakdown of the latest campaign finance reports.
Mr. McConnell has raised more than $21 million and has more than $10.1 million in the bank.
While the Kentucky primary is shaping up as formality, the Republican contest in Georgia is far less certain.
If no one wins 50 percent of the vote Tuesday, it will go to a two-candidate runoff in July.
As it stands, the battle for a spot in a runoff race has boiled down to a three-person contest of Rep. Jack Kingston, deep-pocketed businessman David Perdue and former Secretary of State Karen Handel.
That could be a bad omen for Democrats, as polls show likely Democratic opponent Michelle Nunn was performing better against Reps. Phil Gingrey or Paul C. Broun, who were seen as the most conservative candidates in the race.
But Mrs. Kingston, Mr. Perdue and Mrs. Handel have engaged in an increasingly vicious campaign, which is likely to continue for another 90 days until the July 22 runoff.
“The question will be: Will the next nine weeks be a civil period or one of scorched earth?” Mr. O'Connell said. “If it is scorched earth, then too many open wounds on the eventually GOP victory could give Nunn an opening.”
In other key races across the country Tuesday, freshman Rep. Tom Cotton, a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is expected to win the Republican Senate nomination in Arkansas, putting him on a collision course with two-term Sen. Mark L. Pryor — one of the most vulnerable Democrats in the midterm elections.
In Idaho’s 2nd Congressional District, Rep. Michael K. Simpson is positioned to defeat Bryan Smith, a political novice aligned with the tea party.
In Pennsylvania, Rep. Allyson Y. Schwartz, state Treasurer Rob McCord and free-spending businessman Tom Wolf are running to face off against Gov. Tom Corbett, one of Democrats’ top gubernatorial targets.