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 Barack 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.
Republican Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia, who wants to succeed retiring GOP 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 freshmen Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Ted Cruz of Texas, tea party favorites who pushed the defunding strategy and vexed their longer-serving colleagues.
In Nebraska and Louisiana, Republican candidates who say they oppose the health care law have had to defend their past positions on health care.
National Republicans settled on Rep. Bill Cassidy as their best shot to beat Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La. But retired Air Force Colonel Rob Maness notes that Cassidy, as a state senator and a physician in the state's public hospital system, pushed health care policies similar to those in the Affordable Care Act.
"He has to defend his entire record, regardless of how he's voted in Washington," said Maness, a GOP candidate who hopes to unseat Landrieu with tea party support.
Midland University President Ben Sasse, one of several Republicans running in Nebraska for retiring Sen. Mike Johanns' seat, says he opposes the health care law but has had to explain previous speeches and writings in which he was less absolute, at one point calling the act "an important first step" in overhauling American health care.
"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 Cassidy 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?"
Leaders of national conservative groups, which have been key players in recent Senate elections, say the distinction is an important consideration as they decide endorsements.
"I would say that any candidate who is a vocal opponent of that (defunding) strategy would certainly cause us hesitation," said Easton Randall of FreedomWorks political action committee. "The burden is on them to explain what they would do differently to achieve a goal we all claim to share."
So far, FreedomWorks has endorsed McDaniel over Cochran in Mississippi and Nebraska state Treasurer Shane Osborn over Sasse. The group is watching several other races.
The Senate Conservatives Fund, founded by former Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, split with FreedomWorks in Nebraska, siding with Sasse. But the fund endorsed Maness in Louisiana, Bevin in Kentucky and McDaniel in Mississippi, among others. DeMint now runs the Heritage Foundation, whose political arm also is monitoring several other races.
Those groups' recent record is mixed. Democrats are hoping for a repeat of 2010 and 2012 races where the far right groups backed less-viable candidates who lost general elections in Colorado, Nevada, Delaware and Indiana. But the same groups also helped elect Lee, Cruz and Marco Rubio in the presidential swing state of Florida.
At FreedomWorks, PAC treasurer and policy chief Dean Clancy dismissed any notion that his efforts would hurt the party.
"Republicans make a mistake when they try to waffle on these issues or sound like Democrat-lite," he said.