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GOP faces bruising Senate primaries

WASHINGTON -- Liz Cheney's decision to challenge Wyoming U.S. Senator Mike Enzi in a Republican primary next year sets up the type of divisive, intraparty fight that Republican leaders vowed to avoid after the 2012 elections.

The move this week by Cheney, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, is unlikely to open the door for a Democrat to win the Senate seat in Wyoming, which is heavily Republican.

But it is rekindling Republicans' concerns that party feuds could lead to a reprise of the 2010 and 2012 elections, when bitter Republican primary fights in several states produced weakened, gaffe-prone nominees who went on to lose winnable races to Democrats — and thwart Republicans' hopes of winning a majority in the Senate.

In next year's elections, Republicans will need a net gain of six seats to take control of the 100-member Senate. Most analysts expect the party to gain some seats — possibly enough to reclaim a majority — but say it cannot afford the types of missteps it has made in the past two elections.

The fields of candidates are still shaping up, but already there are signs of brewing Senate primary fights among Republicans in several states, including Iowa, Georgia and Alaska.

“The Republican path to success in the Senate is pretty narrow. If they lose one or two seats because of a difficult primary, that's a huge problem — and it's possible,” said Jennifer Duffy, a Senate analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

“They can't afford a lot of unforced errors,” she added.

Many Republicans still have painful memories of the last two elections, when contentious primaries produced Senate nominees such as Todd Akin in Missouri, Richard Mourdock in Indiana, Sharron Angle in Nevada and Christine O'Donnell in Delaware.

Each rode the momentum of the conservative Tea Party movement to the Republican nomination and then withered amid campaign-trail missteps. Akin and Mourdock stumbled in 2012 by making controversial comments about rape.

During the 2010 campaign, Angle warned that Islamic law was taking hold in some U.S. cities, while O'Donnell — who previously had acknowledged dabbling in witchcraft — made a commercial to try to assure voters she was not a witch.

In the aftermath of the Republican losses last November, party leaders pledged to cut back on internal squabbling and focus on producing disciplined general election candidates.

Republican strategist Karl Rove announced a new Political Action Committee(PAC), the Conservative Victory Project, that would back candidates deemed by party leaders to be the most “electable.”

That drew criticism from Tea Party and other conservative groups, whose challenge to party leaders' authority is at the root of much of the tension within the Republican Party.

'Fissures in the party'

Cheney's announcement seemed to reinforce the message that some Republicans were not on board with the party's unification drive.

She implicitly criticized Enzi's sometimes accommodating style, saying on Tuesday that “we can no longer afford simply to go along to get along” — an echo of past party clashes between ideologically driven activists and more moderate party pragmatists.

“I think it's going to open a lot of fissures in the party,” former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said on MSNBC. “I think this is an insurgent move by Cheney.”

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