WASHINGTON — Democrats have their thumbs on Republican scales in Senate primaries in Missouri and Wisconsin this summer, hoping to improve their own chances of maintaining a majority in November.
The idea isn't quite as far-fetched as it might sound.
Two years ago, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's allies invested heavily in an effort to help Sharron Angle win a contested GOP primary in Nevada after deciding she would be the easiest Republican to defeat in the fall. She won the nomination, but ultimately lost to Reid.
Now Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri is running a series of television advertisements that strategists in both parties say indicates a preference for Rep. Todd Akin over primary rivals John Brunner and Sarah Steelman.
At the same time, Majority PAC, a group with ties to Reid, has run television commercials selectively attacking Republican contenders in Missouri and Wisconsin, where primaries are set for next month.
At first glance, each of the three ads run by McCaskill's campaign appears to be an attack, one at each of her potential rivals.
Yet one calls Akin "too conservative" to be a senator and says he once referred to President Barack Obama as a "complete menace to our civilization" — characteristics that seem more likely to appeal to Republican primary voters than to repulse them.
In a brief interview in the Capitol, McCaskill said she decided to advertise before the primary because she has been attacked heavily by Republican outside groups and didn't want to wait any longer before telling voters "how extremist, how flawed" the GOP field is.
She sidestepped when asked if she has a preferred opponent, saying they were "three of a kind, one and the same."
Republicans as well as some Democrats said the ad relating to Akin was running more often than the others, and one GOP official, citing detailed advertising information, said it was shown about five times for each airing of the others.
McCaskill's campaign declined to discuss the issue, except to say that all ads are airing statewide.
Democrats now hold a 53-47 majority in the Senate, including the support of two independents. Republicans must gain four seats this fall to be assured of winning control, although a pickup of three would be sufficient if Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney defeats Obama.
Beginning with a Republican runoff Tuesday in Texas, there are Senate primaries in 15 states through mid-September.
Most of the contested races involve Republicans, although Democrats have a competitive primary in Hawaii on Aug. 11 between Rep. Mazie Hirono and former Rep. Ed Case. The campaign is notable for the cross-party endorsement Hirono recently received from Republican Rep. Don Young of Alaska, a rarity in a hyperpartisan political environment.
Former Gov. Linda Lingle is the Republican in the race.
Missouri and Wisconsin figure to be among the most competitive Senate races this fall, and Republicans have unpredictable multi-candidate primaries in both. McCaskill has trailed in many public polls and has been hit with more than $8 million in attack ads so far by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other Republican-aligned groups.
In Wisconsin, surveys suggest Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin faces a difficult campaign to win the seat long held by retiring Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl. She, too, has been under attack.
It is fairly common for a candidate of one party to criticize the challenger of another before primaries are held in which there is no doubt about the outcome. But it is relatively rare in other cases, and even rarer that the strategy succeeds.
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