ATLANTA - Republicans see the 2014 midterm elections as a chance to capitalize on voter frustration with the problem-plagued health-care overhaul, but the GOP first must settle a slate of Senate primaries where conservatives are arguing over the best way to oppose President Obama's signature law.
In intraparty skirmishes from Georgia to Nebraska, the GOP's most strident candidates and activists are insisting on a no-holds-barred approach. They accuse fellow Republicans - including several incumbent senators - of being too soft in their opposition to the Affordable Care Act and to the president in general.
The outcomes will help determine just how conservative the Senate Republican caucus will be during Obama's final two years. And they could influence which party controls the chamber, with Democrats hoping that the most uncompromising Republican standard-bearers will emerge from the primaries and fare as poorly in general elections as their counterparts did in several 2012 Senate races. Republicans need to gain six seats for a majority.
Of course, much also depends on how well the Affordable Care Act works later next year.
Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia, who wants to succeed retiring Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss, stepped into the rift recently when he seemed to scold much of his party during an interview on a conservative talk-radio show.
"A lot of conservatives say, 'Nah, just step back and let this thing fall to pieces on its own,' " Kingston said. "Well, I don't think that's always the responsible thing to do."
Rep. Paul Broun, one of Kingston's rivals in a crowded primary field, pounced immediately, declaring in an Internet ad: "I don't want to fix Obamacare. I want to get rid of it." Conservative commentators hammered Kingston with headlines like "Kingston has surrendered on Obamacare."
In Tennessee, State Rep. Joe Carr blasted Sen. Lamar Alexander for serving as a key GOP negotiator in the deal to end the partial government shutdown that resulted from House Republicans' efforts to deny funding for the health-care law. Alexander subsequently described himself as a "conservative problem-solver," a characterization that Carr says "typifies how out of touch he is."
Kentucky businessman Matt Bevin is using a similar line of attack in trying to unseat Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, as is Mississippi State Sen. Chris McDaniel in his primary challenge to Sen. Thad Cochran. Carr, Bevin, and McDaniel all say they'd be more like freshman Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Ted Cruz of Texas, tea party favorites who pushed the defunding strategy and vexed their longer-serving colleagues.
"This goes right to the bigger fight between the ideologues and the pragmatists," said Republican strategist Todd Rehm of Georgia, who isn't affiliated with any of the eight GOP candidates for Chambliss' seat. Candidates who want to capture the divided Republican electorate, he said, "see that you can't compromise on any of it. . . . The moment you start to sound like you're open to any compromise, you've sold out the ideologues."
Indeed, Alexander, McConnell, Kingston, and Rep. Bill Cassidy, running to oust Democrat Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, all voted against the Affordable Care Act in 2010 and for symbolic repeal proposals since then. Some in the GOP leadership say the intraparty struggle is only about tactics, not the bottom line. Carr insists that's exactly the point.
"Their presumption is that tactics don't matter because the outcome would be the same," he said. "But it wouldn't. There wasn't a single Republican vote that passed the Affordable Care Act, whether we're talking establishment, tea party, moderate, conservative, whatever. ... So if it's so bad - and it is - the question is why did establishment Republicans not fight to defund it?"
Next Steps on Insurance
The deadline to enroll via HealthCare.gov for health-care coverage that starts Jan. 1 has passed. Here are tips for those who met the deadline and those who did not.
Met the deadline?
1. Allow a few days for your application to reach the insurance company providing your health plan, then call to make sure it has been processed.
2. If you didn't click "pay now" when you enrolled, make sure you send your first monthly premium payment to your insurance company by Jan. 10.
You won't be covered until you have paid.
3. Learn about the details of your plan. What's covered? What do you pay for out of pocket?
Missed the deadline?
1. If you're uninsured and want coverage, you can still sign up. Coverage will start as soon as Feb. 1
if you choose a plan and pay before mid-January.
2. You can window-shop to compare details on plans available in your region. Click on "See plans before I apply" at HealthCare.gov.
3. Enrollment ends March 31. Miss that deadline and you'll pay a tax penalty for next year of $95 or 1 percent of your income, whichever is higher. Some people may qualify for an exemption because of hardships or if their insurance policy was canceled.
SOURCES: America's Health Insurance Plans, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Consumers Union