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GOP Establishment Looks Set to Win a Bunch of Senate Primaries

Over the past few years, conservative outsiders, many of whom were members of the tea party, ran over the establishment in a number of key Republican primaries for the U.S. Senate. In 2010, tea-party-aligned candidates won in Alaska, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Kentucky, Nevada, Wisconsin and Utah. In doing so, they almost certainly cost Republicans the Senate seat in Delaware, and probably in Colorado and Nevada. Two years later, the process was repeated in Indiana and Missouri.

In choosing less presentable candidates for the general electorate, the GOP may have forfeited Senate control. If this pattern continues in 2014 and 2016, it would represent something new: Functional parties tend to choose candidates who are seen as more moderate the longer they are out of power, and Republicans have been out of the Senate since 2007 and the White House since 2009.

But, just as we would expect, the pattern doesn’t seem to be happening. Establishment Republicans look to be in good shape in many states where a more conservative candidate could cost the party a seat. (Deciding who is the establishment candidate and who is an outsider is an inexact science. But I looked to see who was being backed by establishment groups, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and who was backed by more right-leaning or tea party groups.)

Alaska — Joe Miller (outsider) trails Daniel Sullivan (establishment), the former commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, in early primary polling (polls have not been conducted in the past few months). If Miller loses the primary, he could run as a third-party candidate in the general election.

Colorado — Rep. Cory Gardner (establishment) managed to clear the field in his fight against Democratic incumbent Mark Udall. Gardner even pushed 2010 Republican nominee and tea partyer Ken Buck (outsider) out of the race.

Georgia — Republican insiders were worried that either Rep. Paul Broun or Rep. Phil Gingrey, both conservative firebrands, would be nominated. Although the primary hasn’t taken place yet, Broun and Gingrey are fourth and fifth, respectively, in current polling. The current leaders — Rep. Jack Kingston and David Perdue — are both more moderate than Broun and Gingrey.

Kansas — Milton Wolf (outsider), who posted X-rays of gunshot victims online, doesn’t seem likely to overcome Sen. Pat Roberts (establishment), even though Roberts faced question about whether he actually lived in Kansas. Roberts has been well ahead in polling.

Kentucky — Matt Bevin (outsider), who had some controversial things to say about cockfighting, has never pushed Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (establishment) below the 50 percent mark in polling.

North Carolina — State Rep. Thom Tillis, the establishment favorite, looks to be in good shape, but he isn’t a sure thing. Polls show Tillis near or above the 40 percent necessary to avoid a primary runoff. And there are plenty of undecided voters, who may help him reach 40 percent.

Establishment candidates also lead (or have already won) in South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas, though Republicans would probably win these states no matter who was nominated. The only state where the incumbent looks to be in trouble is Mississippi, and that’s because Thad Cochran might be too liberal for the state.

The races noted above could change, though in most of them, the movement has been toward the establishment or static. It’s also important to mention that being endorsed by the establishment doesn’t necessarily mean a candidate is more moderate, but the two often go hand in hand. It tends to mean that a candidate is considered to be more electable.

The point is, Republican voters don’t appear to be making the same choices they did in 2010. They seem to be following historical precedent and becoming more pragmatic. That suggests that the normal political rules are holding, which might increase the GOP’s chances of taking the Senate in November.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.