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With Midterm Elections 6 Months Away, Primaries Begin


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Congressional elections do not come for months, but in many districts the real action is now. Its primary season and yesterday voters went to the polls around the country. In North Carolina's Republican Senate primary, Thom Tillis, the State House speaker, won a big enough margin to avoid a runoff.

THOM TILLIS: We need to be clear, though, it's is not the end of the process primary. It's really the beginning of our primary mission, which has been the mission along. And that is to beat Kay Hagan and to make Harry Reid irrelevant in American...

INSKEEP: Kay Hagan is the Democratic incumbent Tillis will now face. And, of course, Harry Reid is the Senate majority leader who depends on keeping at least 50 Democrats and their allies in the Senate.

Let's talk about all of this and more with NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, good morning.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK, what's the significance of that North Carolina vote?

LIASSON: Well, it's very important in the battle for the majority in the Senate. The Republicans can't get the majority without winning North Carolina. And Democrat Kay Hagan is one of the most endangered Democratic incumbents out there. Thom Tillis was the establishment-backed candidate. People like Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush supported him, while other 2016 hopefuls like Mike Huckabee and Rand Paul intervened to support Tillis's opponents.

But no runoff means that Republicans can now focus all their fire on Hagan. Outside groups have already spent more than $10 million hammering her. But now Tillis will not have to spend any money on a months-long expensive intramural fight. This is why Kay Hagan intervened in the Republican primary, trying to undercut Tillis, but it didn't work.

INSKEEP: And now we move on to other primaries.

LIASSON: Well, there's Georgia, Kentucky, Oregon, Mississippi. The Republicans are equally hopeful that the best candidate for the general election is going to prevail in all of those places. Sometimes it'll be an incumbent. In Kentucky, for instance, Mitch McConnell - the minority leader in the Senate wants to become the majority leader - seems poised to easily beat back a primary challenge from a Tea Party candidate. And in Oregon the Republicans are hopeful that they can nominate Monica Wehby, who is a moderate female pediatric neurosurgeon, so they can put that state in play.

INSKEEP: OK. So I am beginning to sense a pattern here, Mara Liasson. You have in some of these primaries, including the one in North Carolina and others - you have an establishment candidate backed by the more establishment figures. And then Tea Party type figures or Tea Party heroes like Rand Paul backing other challengers in those same primaries.

LIASSON: That's right. And I think this year's theme is the Empire Strikes Back. You know, last night every single House incumbent won their primary, including John Boehner in Ohio. And no Senate incumbent has been defeated yet. Mainstream groups - like the American Crossroads superPAC or the Chamber of Commerce - spend very big in North Carolina. Tea Party groups like FreedomWorks barely invested any money there.

So it seems like the Republicans have learned the lessons they learned very painfully in 2010 and 2012, when they nominated candidates who were either too conservative to win or just not ready for prime time - people like Christine O'Donnell in Delaware or Todd Akin in Missouri - where the GOP lost states that they should have won.

But this year, Republicans are extremely confident. They have the better candidates. And interesting enough, even though the Tea Party is losing these races, they can declare victory because they have moved the entire Republican Party to the right.

INSKEEP: Oh, because the establishment candidates, you're saying, are speaking more conservatively than perhaps they would have in the past.

LIASSON: Yes. Yes.

INSKEEP: So what are the odds that Republicans could take over the Senate, which is now held by Democrats with what seems like a comfortable margin?

LIASSON: Well, the battleground looks very good for Republicans. The map seems to be getting bigger by the day. First it was seven states in the battleground, like Montana, West Virginia, South Dakota, North Carolina, Louisiana, Arkansas and Alabama. Now Republicans are trying to expand the map to Oregon, New Hampshire, Iowa, Michigan, Colorado. They only need six states - six net pickups to take over the Senate. And they are fishing in a very big and growing pool.

INSKEEP: OK. Mara, thanks as always.

LIASSON: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.