WASHINGTON (AP) — Two veteran Republicans, former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson and Florida Rep. John Mica, are facing strong challenges in primary contests that reflect the rift in the GOP between grass-roots conservatives and the party's establishment candidates.
Those races headline Tuesday's primaries in four states, including Connecticut and Minnesota.
Wisconsin and Florida are the latest battlegrounds for tea party forces and other conservative activists hoping to add to big wins this year in the Indiana and Texas GOP Senate primaries. Tea party candidates scored major gains in 2010 congressional races, but they've had mixed success since.
Thompson, who served as Health and Human Services secretary under President George W. Bush, is in a tough four-way race to succeed retiring Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl. His challengers have cast themselves as closer to today's more conservative GOP than the 70-year-old Thompson.
Thompson was governor for 14 years, but the party has become more conservative since he left the post for the Bush administration in 2001.
Former Rep. Mark Neumann boasts the most support from tea party groups, including the Tea Party Express and the conservative Club for Growth, plus Sens. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., and Rand Paul, R-Ky. Polls suggest Neumann has surged in recent weeks, putting him in position to pull a late surprise in the Wisconsin contest.
Political newcomer and wealthy businessman Eric Hovde touts his fiscal conservatism. Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald has the most direct ties to Gov. Scott Walker, who survived a high-profile recall election that roiled the state just two months ago.
The winner will take on Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin, who is uncontested by other Democrats. Republicans see the Senate race in Wisconsin as a pickup opportunity as they try to gain majority control from the Democrats. The GOP needs to net four seats to take back the Senate in November.
In Florida, Mica, a 10-term congressman who wields considerable Capitol Hill clout as the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, is locked in a nasty member-versus-member race against Rep. Sandy Adams, a tea party freshman backed by 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin.
Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, a Democrat, has dubbed it "one of those contests for the heart and soul of the Republican Party."
Adams says the big-spending ways of longtime lawmakers and Washington insiders like Mica have fueled the nation's soaring debt, a charge that echoes the deep divisions in the GOP. The two tangled over spending for pet projects and who's more conservative.
For decades, some of the most conservative Republicans steered federal dollars to their home districts to boost local economies as well as their own political stock. More recently, anti-establishment conservatives, including tea partiers, have scored election wins by taking sharp aim at excessive spending by Washington's establishment players.
Mica and Adams landed in the same central Florida district due to redistricting. The winner is likely to win in November in the Republican-leaning district.
Also in Florida, Rep. Connie Mack IV is heavily favored to win the Republican Senate primary and take on Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson in November. Mack faces former Rep. Dave Weldon, who is seen as lacking the name recognition and campaign cash to effectively reach voters statewide.
In Connecticut, wealthy former wrestling executive Linda McMahon, the GOP's endorsed candidate, is a favorite against former Rep. Christopher Shays in the U.S. Senate primary. Sen. Joe Lieberman, an independent, is retiring.
Shays, a moderate who had represented a district anchored by Greenwich and other wealthy suburbs outside New York City since 1987, lost his seat in 2008. He's hoping his Washington experience will blunt McMahon's wealth and official party support.
McMahon spent about $50 million of her own money in her failed 2010 Senate race. It was the largest amount of money spent on any campaign in state history, as well as the largest amount per vote nationwide. She's outspending Shays and has attacked him as a career politician.
In the Democratic Senate primary, Rep. Chris Murphy is the party's endorsed candidate and has led former state Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz in recent polls and fundraising. Looking past Shays, McMahon already has aired an attack ad against Murphy.
In Minnesota, Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar faces no major primary challengers as she seeks a second term. State Rep. Kurt Bills is favored to win the Republican primary. Klobuchar is expected to have strong money and name-recognition advantages in the November contest.