WASHINGTON D.C. — Republicans count enough competitive races to challenge Democrats for control of the Senate in the 2014 elections, if only they can figure out what to do with the tea party.
Crowded primaries in states such as Georgia, Iowa and North Carolina, where tea partyers and social conservatives are fighting for the nomination and pushing candidates farther right, worry many Republicans, especially after they saw their legitimate shots at a Senate majority slip away in 2010 and 2012.
Republicans need a net gain of six seats to capture control from Democrats, who effectively hold a 55-45 advantage now. But Democrats will be defending 21 of 35 seats to be decided in November, and President Barack Obama is looking like a major drag for them. Midterm elections are often tough for a president's party in any event.
"History is with us, geography is with us and the president's signature legislative achievement is the most unpopular" law of his tenure, Rob Collins, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said of Obama and his health care overhaul.
Republicans inside and outside the Senate speak confidently about snatching open seats in West Virginia and South Dakota. They like their chances against Democratic incumbents in Republican-leaning Arkansas, Louisiana and Alaska and remain upbeat about Montana even if Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock names Lt. Gov. John Walsh to succeed Sen. Max Baucus, Obama's choice for U.S. ambassador to China.
The looming question is whether Republicans undercut their solid shot with tea party-style candidates who fizzled out in Delaware, Colorado and Nevada in 2010 and Indiana and Missouri in 2012.
Georgia is keeping some Republicans awake at night. Eight candidates, including three House members, are pursuing the open seat of retiring two-term Sen. Saxby Chambliss in a state that dramatically went Republican in 1994 and rarely has looked back. Georgia hasn't elected a non-incumbent Democrat since 1998.
A loss of the GOP seat would complicate any Republican math for a majority.
The top Democratic hopeful is Michelle Nunn, CEO of the volunteer organization Points of Light and daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn. The younger Nunn's diligence gets high marks from Democrats and Republicans. She has raised more than $1.7 million and campaigned with a purpose.
While more attention has focused on Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, who is challenging Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in the marquee race of the cycle, Republicans say Nunn is the real deal.
She stands as a moderate Democrat who could appeal to Georgia's electorate and a Washington outsider in a year when congressional approval is in single digits.
Republicans are nervous about Rep. Paul Broun, who has said evolution and the Big Bang theory are "lies straight from the pit of Hell." Although the four-term Georgia congressman has avoided incendiary comments in his latest campaign, several Republicans privately fret about him winning the nomination.
Looking to seize the edge in the free-for-all primary, Broun recently pounded rival Rep. Jack Kingston, considered more moderate, after Kingston suggested that Obama's health care law could be fixed. Kingston quickly backtracked on an issue that resonates with core GOP voters, but then came under criticism for saying poor children could pay a small fee or work cleaning up to receive school-subsidized lunches.
"'Why don't you, you know, have the kids pay a dime, pay a nickel to instill in them that there is, in fact, no such thing as a free lunch — or maybe sweep the floor in the cafeteria,'" he said at a Jackson County event.
Guy Cecil, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, argued that the presence of tea partyers in primaries is forcing all Republican candidates to race to the right. The result is nominees unacceptable in the general election, he said.
"Primary electorates are so small it essentially encourages the Akin-ization of the entire Republican primary," Cecil said.
His reference was to Missouri 2012. Republicans were certain they could defeat Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., but their nominee, Rep. Todd Akin, flamed out after saying women's bodies can avoid pregnancy in cases of "legitimate rape." McCaskill won re-election by 16 percentage points.
Georgia rules set the primary for May 20, but if no candidate gets 50 percent, a runoff occurs July 22.
Several Republicans insist that establishment candidates will eventually prevail and the internal fights won't matter as Democrats struggle with the most contentious issue of the year — Obama's health care law — and the political damage from its many problems.
"I think it may be the most difficult political yoke to carry in the history of American politics," said Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga. "Where else do you have something that affects everybody? And health care does."
Democrats don't dispute that the troubled rollout of the health care website has hurt them.
"There's no doubt Republicans are a little more gleeful," said John Anzalone, a Democratic pollster and adviser to North Carolina Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, who is seeking a second term. "Who can say with a straight face that this has not been a bad month for Democrats?"
But Anzalone added: "It's not a permanent thing. This is really about the political environment nationally. It evens out."
In the North Carolina race, Senate Republicans have been raising money for Thom Tillis, speaker of the state House. Tillis faces challenges from Greg Brannon, a physician who has the backing of Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and has been seeking the support of the tea party and Rev. Mark Harris, a Baptist minister who was instrumental in the state fight to ban gay marriage.
Hagan has struggled to answer for her support for the health care law, and in a clear sign of Democratic concern, the Senate Majority PAC, which backs Democratic candidates, bought $750,000 of television air time in December to counter Republican attacks against her. The group spent hundreds of thousands of dollars more for Hagan earlier in the year.
North Carolina's primary is May 6 and if no candidate gets 40 percent of the vote, a runoff is set for July 15.
Collins, the Senate Republicans' campaign director, maintained that competition in the primaries will make the party's eventual nominees stronger for the general election.
Republicans see a potential to expand the field from the top tier races to contests in Michigan and Minnesota. Iowa seemed like a prime opportunity for Republicans after five-term Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin announced he would not seek another term.
Democrats rallied around four-term Rep. Bruce Braley. But on the GOP side, there are no fewer than seven candidates seeking the nomination in Iowa, including conservative radio host Sam Clovis, state Sen. Joni Ernst, former energy company CEO Mark Jacobs and former U.S. Attorney Matt Whitaker. There is talk that even more will enter the race.
Iowa's June 3 primary has a 35 percent threshold. If no candidate gets that much, the nomination would be decided at a party convention where the most conservative members typically nominate a harder-right candidate.
Associated Press writer Thomas Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this report.