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Senate faces potential influx of conservative Republicans


The Senate is likely to assume an even more conservative tenor come January as a crop of insurgent-minded Republicans replace some of the GOP's old guard in the upper chamber.

A transformation within the Republican Party that was first set in motion during the 2010 midterm elections appears set to continue in the Senate, following in the path blazed in the House during this term of Congress.

“The goal is not only getting the Republican majority, but getting a conservative majority -- a majority of the Republican majority,” said Brendan Steinhauser, the director of state and federal campaigns for FreedomWorks, a group that’s worked to elect Tea Party candidates the last two cycles. “In a lot of ways, we're just getting started.”

Top Talkers: Texas Tea Party politician Ted Cruz won the GOP nomination for the Senate seat being vacated by Republican Kay Bailey Hutchinson in a recent runoff race. The Morning Joe panel – including Donny Deutsch, the Washington Post's Jonathan Capehart, the New York Times' Gail Collins, Time's Mark Halperin, and the Huffington Post's Sam Stein – discusses Cruz's win and what it may mean for Tea Party conservatives.

While the Senate could flip to Republican control as a product of this fall's election, the chamber is even more likely to lurch rightward thanks to the ideological profile of its incoming measures.

The Senate’s more than likely to count conservatives like Texas’ Ted Cruz – the former state solicitor general who beat the establishment-backed Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in the Lone Star State's Senate primary on Tuesday – among its members come next January.

Cruz would replace retiring Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a relative moderate who’s spent 19 years in the Senate.

“Change happens faster in the House because you change over every two years,” said Grover Norquist, the president of the fiscally conservative Americans for Tax Reform. “From a Reagan perspective, it just takes longer for the Senate to shift than in the House. “

Joining Cruz could be two other Republicans who may very well be elected this fall: Nebraska's Deb Fischer and Indiana's Richard Mourdock, who both beat establishment-backed candidates in their primaries earlier this year.

In the case of Mourdock, he beat veteran Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar in a Republican primary by emphasizing Lugar's loosening ties to Indiana as much as the need for greater conservative fealty.

Texas Tea Party politician Ted Cruz won the GOP nomination for the Senate seat being vacated by Republican Kay Bailey Hutchinson in a recent runoff race, and Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., joins Morning Joe to discuss Cruz's win and discuss the Tea Party Republicans. "Last Word" host Lawrence O'Donnell helps co-host.

"To me, the highlight of politics, frankly, is to inflict my opinion on someone else from the microphone or in front of a camera, to win them over to my point of view," Mourdock described his approach to politics on MSNBC's "Daily Rundown" after winning his primary. "If I am fortunate enough to become a United States senator, we're going to be involved with the national argument…”

Additional primaries that haven't yet been held could put more conservative insurgents in a position to take seats in the Senate.

“Part of what you're getting is an argument for electing guys who will go in and bust up the furniture and push hard,” Norquist said. “I think that means behavior modification for sitting senators on the Republican side, who will go, 'You mean that can happen to me?'”

Businessman John Brunner is battling against Rep. Todd Akin and former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman for the Republican Senate nomination in Missouri. The winner will face off against Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, who trailed each of her potential Republican opponents in a Mason-Dixon poll released over the weekend.

Or take, for example, the three-way primary fight in Wisconsin, where newcomer Eric Hovde and former Rep. Mark Neumann are locked in a competitive challenge to former three-term Gov. Tommy Thompson.

Even upstart conservative challenger Will Cardon has made the Arizona Senate primary unpleasant for Rep. Jeff Flake, who's long been celebrated on the right for his commitment to fiscal conservatism and has the backing of FreedomWorks and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, among other heavyweights.

In essence, the Senate Republican Conference could be refashioned as a more conservative version of its current self, a transformation that stalled in 2010 after some of the less polished conservative primary victors – like Nevada’s Sharron Angle, Colorado’s Ken Buck or Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell – fizzled in their general election campaigns.

Still, Republicans sent enough conservative darlings – Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Marco Rubio of Florida and Mike Lee of Utah, among others – to Washington in 2010 who could combine with insurgent-minded Republicans still yet to be elected this fall. Their numbers growing, these GOP senators are poised to add a harder edge to the GOP’s conservatism in the Senate.

Jim Manley, a former longtime aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., suggested that these Republican newcomers could make the Senate even more unwieldy to manage.

J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., talks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington July 31 following a political strategy session.

Republicans are optimistic that they’ll win control of the Senate in this fall’s election, which could propel Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., into the role of majority leader. But McConnell would soon encounter dueling obligations: the conservatives in his party demanding ideological purity and the need to assemble the 60 votes necessary – probably by winning over Democrats – to pass most anything in the Senate.

“I am very impressed with Ted Cruz and will do everything I can to help elect him in November,” McConnell said through a spokesman about the new face of the Senate GOP. “I look forward to working with anyone who is committed to reversing the Obama administration’s irresponsible spending, over-regulation and assaults on individual liberty, and I expect the Republican conference will be strongly united in all these efforts next year.”

“His caucus which is dominated by hardline conservatives could become even increasingly so after the elections in November. That means a somewhat unmanageable Senate GOP caucus could become even more so,” Manley said. “We all saw how difficult Speaker Boehner found dealing with those Tea Party types.”

It’s likely that these tensions would quickly come to loggerheads, too, given the pressing issues lawmakers will have to tackle almost immediately after the new Congress convenes in January.

Barring some deal either before the election or in the lame-duck Congress – both unlikely propositions – the new Congress will have to reckon quickly with the effects of automatic cuts to defense spending and automatic tax rate increases set to take place on Jan. 1.

Taken together, these complicated and intertwined elements of the so-called “fiscal cliff” practically demand the kind of concessions and compromises that lawmakers have found so elusive for the past year and a half.

“Leaving aside the lame duck, we can agree that under that scenario the kickoff to the new Congress could be very ugly, given all the pressing demands the new Congress may be forced to address,” Manley said. “It would make an already unprecedented situation that much more difficult.”

If that would seem to invite cooler heads to prevail, don’t expect groups like FreedomWorks to drop their quest to change the face of the Republican Party in Congress.

“We're going to make big inroads this year, but we're looking ahead,” Steinhauser said. “In 2014 we're already thinking about Lindsey Graham being replaced in South Carolina and Lamar Alexander in Tennessee.”