Conservative challengers in Wis., Fla. GOP races

Longtime Republicans are facing tough races against insurgent conservatives

Topics: From the Wires, Wisconsin, Florida, Florida Senate Race,

WASHINGTON (AP) — The sharp split in the Republican party between grass-roots conservatives and the GOP’s establishment candidates is front and center Tuesday as voters decide House and Senate primary contests in Florida and Wisconsin.

A pair of longtime Republicans — former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson and Florida Rep. John Mica — are facing strong challenges from insurgent conservatives. Their races are the marquee contests among four state primaries, including Connecticut and Minnesota.

Wisconsin and Florida are the latest battlegrounds for tea party forces and other conservative activists hoping to add to big wins this year in the Indiana and Texas GOP Senate primaries. Tea party candidates scored major gains in the 2010 congressional races, but they’ve had mixed success since then.

Thompson, who served as Health and Human Services secretary under President George W. Bush, is in a tough four-way race for a chance to succeed retiring Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl. His challengers have cast themselves as closer to today’s more conservative GOP than the 70-year-old Thompson.

Thompson was governor for 14 years, but the party has become more conservative since he left the post for the Bush administration in 2001.

Former Rep. Mark Neumann boasts the most support from tea party groups including the Tea Party Express, the conservative Club for Growth, and Sens. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., and Rand Paul, R-Ky. Polls suggest Neumann has surged in recent weeks, putting him in position to pull a late surprise.

Political newcomer and wealthy businessman Eric Hovde touts his fiscal conservatism. State Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald has the most direct ties to Gov. Scott Walker, who survived a high-profile recall election that roiled the state just two months ago.

The winner will take on Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin, who is uncontested. Republicans see the Senate race in Wisconsin as a pickup opportunity as they try to gain majority control from the Democrats. The GOP needs to net four seats to wrest control of the Senate in November

In Florida, Mica, a 10-term congressman who wields considerable Capitol Hill clout as the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, is locked in a nasty race against one of his own: Florida Rep. Sandy Adams, a tea party freshman backed by 2008 GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

Mica and Adams landed in the same central Florida district due to redistricting. The primary winner is likely to succeed in November in the Republican-leaning district.

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, a Democrat, has dubbed it “one of those contests for the heart and soul of the Republican Party.”

Adams says the big-spending ways of longtime lawmakers and Washington insiders like Mica have fueled the nation’s soaring debt, a charge that echoes the deep divisions in the GOP. The two tangled over spending for pet projects and who’s more conservative.

For decades, some of the most conservative Republicans steered federal dollars to their home districts to boost local economies as well as their own political stock. More recently, anti-establishment conservatives, including tea partyers, have scored election wins by taking sharp aim at excessive spending by Washington’s establishment players.

Also in Florida, Rep. Connie Mack IV is heavily favored to win the Republican Senate primary and take on Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson in November. Mack faces former Rep. Dave Weldon, who lacks the name recognition and campaign cash to effectively reach voters statewide.

In Connecticut, wealthy former wrestling executive Linda McMahon, the GOP’s endorsed candidate, is a favorite against former Rep. Christopher Shays in the Senate primary. Sen. Joe Lieberman, an independent, is retiring.

Shays, a moderate who had represented a district anchored by Greenwich and other wealthy suburbs outside New York City since 1987, lost his seat in 2008. He’s hoping his Washington experience will blunt McMahon’s wealth and official party support.

McMahon spent about $50 million of her own money in her failed 2010 Senate race. It was the largest amount of money spent on any campaign in state history, as well as the largest amount per vote nationwide. She’s outspending Shays and has attacked him as a career politician.

In Connecticut’s Democratic Senate primary, Rep. Chris Murphy is the party’s endorsed candidate and has led former Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz in recent polls and fundraising. Looking past Shays, McMahon has already aired an attack ad against Murphy.

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