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GOP establishment loses yet another Senate primary

Trump's Alabama reaction
Political fallout from the Alabama special election 05:20

The Republican establishment again suffered on Tuesday what has become a familiar ordeal for the party in recent election cycles: the defeat of an institutionally-backed candidate in a competitive Senate primary by a conservative insurgent. This time, the Republican mutiny occurred in Alabama, where staunchly right-wing candidate Roy Moore ousted incumbent Sen. Luther Strange by a comfortable margin in a primary runoff. 

The newly-minted GOP senate candidate is no stranger to Alabama Republicans: he twice led the state's Supreme Court, and was twice ousted from that position – first for refusing to remove a statue of the Ten Commandments he'd had installed in the court, and later for defying the Supreme Court decision granting same-sex couples the right to marry.

Those stands made Moore a hero among some Republicans in the state, along with his starkly conservative views on social issues and immigration. But they also pushed the Republican establishment to throw its support behind Strange, who'd been appointed to the seat.

How Roy Moore won 11:07

Strange was backed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (plus all the money and infrastructure that came with), and he was endorsed by President Trump, who even traveled to the state to campaign for him. But Moore was backed by conservative figures like former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Mr. Trump's recently-departed chief strategist, Steve Bannon, who framed Moore's candidacy as an opportunity to "drain the swamp" in Washington.

In the end, Strange was successfully tagged as a creature of the establishment, and Moore prevailed. The GOP nominee is favored to win the general election in December to fill the seat Jeff Sessions vacated to become attorney general.

If Moore wins the seat, he would defy the concerns of some Republicans who worry he'll make the race more competitive than it needs to be in deep-red Alabama. He would, however, be following in the footsteps of several insurgent candidates who went on to win their general elections in recent years. Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, and Rand Paul, for example, are now the U.S. senators from Texas, Utah, and Kentucky, respectively.

But some other recent, similar episodes haven't ended so auspiciously for the GOP: Since 2010, Republicans have watched winnable Senate races in states like Delaware, Nevada, Missouri, Indiana, and Colorado slip away, in part, because their primaries elevated a fringe candidate over a more mainstream figure.

Here's a look back at some recent GOP Senate primary upsets.

Christine O'Donnell – Delaware, 2010

Who could forget Christine "I am not a witch" O'Donnell?

In 2010, Delaware Republicans saw a prime Senate pickup opportunity, and they had just the man to win it: Moderate GOP Rep. Mike Castle, a former Delaware governor who'd held the state's at-large congressional seat since 1993. Castle's popularity in the state was such that Democrats weren't planning to contest the seat if he won the primary.

But Castle didn't win. Instead, he was tagged as a "Republican-in-name-only" by some in the conservative grassroots, and he was defeated in a shocking primary upset by Christine O'Donnell, a social conservative activist and occasional political aspirant. O'Donnell's general election campaign was a calamity nearly from the start. She had trouble identifying the first amendment during a debate and was constantly peppered about controversial statements in her past. Most memorably, when an old clip surfaced of her discussing how she "dabbled into witchcraft," her campaign released a now-infamous ad in which O'Donnell stared directly into the camera and reassured voters, "I am not a witch." In the end, she lost to Democratic candidate Chris Coons, who was then a little-known county executive.

Reid Topples Angle in Nevada Race 01:44

Sharron Angle – Nevada, 2010

Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, the leader of the Democratic caucus, was not supposed to survive the 2010 election. His approval numbers were abysmal, and his role in spearheading Obamacare had left some Nevadans with the impression that he was more concerned about his leadership role in Washington than tending to his state's needs. Republicans, meanwhile, had found a strong candidate in Sue Lowden, a former state senator and state GOP chairwoman. Reid, though, sniped at Lowden throughout her primary race, and the attacks ultimately paid off: Lowden was defeated by State Sen. Sharron Angle, who was supported by national tea party groups but was also seen as a weaker general election challenger.

Angle's campaign seemed to careen from mistake to mistake. She told a rape victim to avoid abortion and "make a lemon situation into lemonade." Justifying her restrictive stance on immigration, she told a group of Latino high school students, "I don't know that all of you are Latino. Some of you look a little more Asian to me." She even seemed to hint at political violence, musing at one point about "Second Amendment remedies" in response to recent moves in D.C. Beset by controversies, Angle repeatedly ran away from reporters trying to ask her questions. She lost in November.

Ken Buck – Colorado, 2010

Colorado was the third pickup opportunity Republicans missed in 2010, which was supposed to be an all-around terrible year for Democratic candidates. The GOP primary was fought between Ken Buck, a district attorney, and Jane Norton, the state's Republican lieutenant governor. Buck was supported by tea party groups; Norton was backed by the state's GOP establishment. In the end, Buck narrowly defeated Norton for the right to face incumbent Democratic Sen. Michael Bennett in November.

Many analysts believe it was Buck's stance on abortion, more than any other single factor, that cost him the race. He opposed abortion even in cases of rape or incest. Colorado is a swing state, but it leans left on social issues, as do other libertarian-minded states in the mountain west. Buck tried to backpedal on his abortion stance as the election wore on, but it did him no good: Bennett ultimately won the election, aided by a 17-point margin among female voters.

Rand Paul – Kentucky, 2010

Kentucky Republicans were not concerned about the retirement of Sen. Jim Bunning in 2010 because they already knew who they wanted to replace him: Trey Grayson, the Kentucky secretary of state. But Rand Paul, an ophthalmologist who lived in the state and the son of former GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul, had other ideas.

Grayson was supported by the state's most powerful Republican, Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell, but it was not enough to drag him across the finish line. Paul won the primary and faced off against Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway in the general election. The race was very close – a seeming affirmation of the Republican establishment's concern that Paul's nomination would put the seat in jeopardy – but Paul narrowly won in November.

Mike Lee – Utah, 2010

Mike Lee, at attorney and former Supreme Court clerk, was the Republicans' other successful renegade candidate in 2010. Long-serving incumbent GOP Sen. Bob Bennett had been under fire for his support for the 2008 Wall Street bailout and a health care proposal he'd co-authored with a Democrat, and he lost the nomination during the state party's convention in May of that year. Lee and another GOP candidate advanced to a runoff in June, which Lee won. And come November, Lee was elected Utah's junior senator.

Todd Akin – Missouri, 2012

As the 2012 election approached, Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill looked like a prime target for Republicans. Her state's Republican tilt, combined with the controversy over her support for the recent health care reform law and the relative unpopularity of then-President Obama in her state, had left her vulnerable to a challenge. The Republican establishment in the state coalesced behind former state treasurer Sarah Steelman and businessman John Brunner, but both were defeated in the primary by firebrand Rep. Todd Akin.

During Akin's campaign against McCaskill in the general election, he uttered what has become one of the most infamous political gaffes in recent years, questioning aloud whether a pregnancy could result from "legitimate rape" and suggesting "the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down." The remarks lit a firestorm that lasted through Election Day, and Akin was eventually defeated by McCaskill, even as Mr. Obama lost the state's presidential vote to GOP nominee Mitt Romney.

Richard Mourdock – Indiana, 2012

A year ahead of the 2012 election, Republicans weren't the least bit concerned about holding onto Indiana's senate seat. Despite President Obama's victory there in 2008, the state was drifting away from Democrats in 2012, and the president's reelection campaign wasn't seriously contesting it. Plus, longtime GOP Sen. Dick Lugar was an established, popular figure in the state.

But Lugar lost his primary in a shocking upset to the state treasurer, Richard Mourdock, who enjoyed strong support from Indiana tea party groups. Democrats nabbed a solid, center-left nominee in then-Rep. Joe Donnelly, but it was still expected to be an uphill climb for him to win in November.

That changed in October, when Mourdock justified his opposition to abortion in the case of rape by saying pregnancies resulting from rape were "something God intended." The remarks took on added controversy in the wake of Todd Akin's "legitimate rape" gaffe in Missouri, and Mourdock ultimately lost the race to Donnelly.

Ted Cruz – Texas, 2012

When Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison announced she would retire after the 2012 election, Texas Republicans thought they'd found the perfect candidate to succeed her in then-Lt. Gov David Dewhurst. Dewhurst had a long record of public service in the state, he'd been elected statewide before, and he was serving under a relatively popular governor, Rick Perry.

In the primary, however, Ted Cruz, a former Texas solicitor general, was able to turn Dewhurst's long record into a liability, painting him as a creature of the Austin establishment. The conservative grassroots rallied on Cruz's behalf, exhorted by figures like Palin and Rand Paul, and Cruz eventually defeated Dewhurst by a comfortable margin. He went on to win the general election that November.

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