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Tea Party losing races but tugging GOP to right

Matt Bevin has Tea Party support in Kentucky, where he faces Senator Mitch McConnell in Tuesday’s primary.

/John Sommers II/Reuters

Matt Bevin has Tea Party support in Kentucky, where he faces Senator Mitch McConnell in Tuesday’s primary.

WASHINGTON — Tuesday’s high-profile primary elections could extend a streak of sorts for Tea Party Republicans: losing individual races but winning the larger ideological war by tugging the GOP rightward.

Several Tea Party-endorsed candidates are struggling in Tuesday’s Republican congressional primaries in Georgia, Kentucky, and Idaho. In each state, however, the ‘‘establishment’’ Republican candidates have emphasized their conservative credentials, which narrows the party’s philosophical differences.

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Citing similar dynamics in other states, Democrats say the GOP candidates who are trying to give Republicans control of the Senate will prove to be too far right for centrist voters in November.

Republicans need to gain six Senate seats to control the chamber. Holding Kentucky and Georgia against well-funded Democrats, both women, is crucial to their hopes.

Six states hold primaries Tuesday. Georgia, Kentucky, and Oregon have closely watched Republican contests for Senate. Pennsylvania and Arkansas have feisty gubernatorial primaries. In Idaho, Tea Party-backed lawyer Bryan Smith is trying to oust Republican Representative Mike Simpson, who is seeking a ninth House term. In most states, the turnout is projected to be low.

In Kentucky, Tea Party supporters seek to knock off Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, a 30-year senator they see as too accommodating to Democrats. But challenger Matt Bevin has struggled under a barrage of attacks from McConnell and his allies.

McConnell, caught off guard by the Tea Party movement in 2010, has scrambled to win support from conservatives who dislike compromise. He quickly allied himself with his colleague from Kentucky, Senator Rand Paul, who defeated McConnell’s hand-picked candidate in the 2010 primary.

And in February, McConnell voted against raising the debt ceiling, a never-pleasant vote that past party leaders often swallowed to avert a government default.

In Georgia, the Republican primary to succeed retiring Senator Saxby Chambliss drew a crowded field, including three US House members. All are battling for the top two spots, with a runoff virtually certain.

Polls suggest Representatives Paul Broun and Phil Gingrey, who espouse Tea Party principles, may have faded in recent weeks. Georgia’s former secretary of state, Karen Handel, won endorsements from Sarah Palin and the Tea Party Express.

Representative Jack Kingston and businessman David Perdue have walked a careful line: showing more openness to establishment support while still catering to hard-core conservatives who dominate Republican primaries. When the US Chamber of Commerce endorsed Kingston, Broun called him ‘‘the king of pork.’’

That tag might have fit a few years ago. Kingston, a longtime Appropriations Committee member, has proudly steered millions of federal dollars to his district. But Tea Party-driven attacks on federal spending have sent Republicans scurrying to tighter-fisted ground. Kingston surprised some in January when he voted against an appropriations bill after working hard to insert funding for Savannah’s port.

In Oregon, Republicans hope to knock off first-term Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley in November. Seeking the GOP nomination Tuesday are pediatric neurosurgeon Monica Wehby and state Representative Jason Conger.

The Arkansas primary holds drama for several state offices, but the US Senate showdown will come this fall. Two-term Democratic Senator Mark Pryor and first-term Republican Representative Tom Cotton will claim their parties’ nominations Tuesday. Cotton cleared the Republican field partly by steering solidly right on key issues.

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