WASHINGTON (Reuters) - After hearing months of dire political predictions, President Barack Obama’s Democrats took heart on Wednesday from primary results that spared an endangered senator and highlighted Republican Party divisions ahead of November’s elections.
Democratic Senator Michael Bennet’s primary win in Colorado bucked a national anti-incumbent trend and was good news for Obama, who campaigned for Bennet in a bitter fight against a challenger backed by former President Bill Clinton.
Republicans, meanwhile, saw candidates backed by the party establishment go down to defeat to outsiders in Colorado and Connecticut Senate primaries that could complicate their chances in November.
“Democrats definitely had the better night,” analyst Jennifer Duffy of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report said. “Pulling an incumbent back from the edge of defeat in an environment like this is a good result.”
Democrats have been battling a strong anti-Washington and anti-incumbent voter mood in their quest to retain control of the House of Representatives and the Senate in November.
Republicans have a strong chance to take control of at least the House in the November 2 election. They must gain 39 House seats and 10 Senate seats to gain congressional majorities that would slam the brakes on Obama’s legislative agenda.
Bennet, appointed to the Senate seat in Colorado last year when Ken Salazar became Interior Secretary, enters the general election race as a slight favorite against conservative Tea Party-backed Republican nominee Ken Buck.
Bennet’s victory suggested there could be limits to the anti-incumbent mood that swept away two of his Senate colleagues and a handful of House incumbents in primaries earlier this year.
Bennet made no commitment about how much he would rely on Obama in the general campaign, and Republicans said they would ensure he could not paint himself as a Washington outsider.
“While there’s no doubt that Bennet will now attempt to distance himself from his party leaders in Washington, his liberal record in support of wasteful spending and bigger government bureaucracy speaks for itself,” said Republican Senator John Cornyn, head of the party’s Senate campaign arm.
Colorado’s Buck is the fourth Republican backed by the conservative Tea Party to clinch a Senate nomination — following Rand Paul in Kentucky, Marco Rubio in Florida and Sharron Angle in Nevada — and their candidacies create new problems for Republicans.
All four have been unpredictable and must prove they can expand their appeal beyond the Tea Party’s conservative core. Their nominations boost Democratic chances in four states critical to Republican hopes of capturing the Senate.
“These candidates have created some problems for Republicans, and they will probably cost Republicans some opportunities they should have had,” Duffy said.
In Connecticut, the victory of wealthy wrestling executive Linda McMahon over former Representative Rob Simmons in the Senate primary was another triumph for outsiders over the establishment.
McMahon has promised to drop as much as $50 million of her fortune into the race against state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, but Democrats said they plan to make her former role as chief executive of the World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. a prime campaign issue.
The popular wrestling enterprise offers staged spectacles featuring scantily clad women and heavily muscled men bashing each other with props.
“I think the outcome of last night’s elections ... were nothing but good news for the Democratic Party,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.
In Georgia, Representative Nathan Deal narrowly defeated Karen Handel in a Republican runoff for governor that had become a proxy battle between potential 2012 Republican presidential contenders.
Handel was endorsed by former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, the 2008 vice presidential nominee. Deal, a former representative, was backed by former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Editing by Jackie Frank