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Gary Bauer in 2006. / JIM WATSON, AFP/Getty Images

WASHINGTON - The Republican Party's efforts to take control of the U.S. Senate in November's elections could be complicated by the increasing number of outside groups hoping to boost ideologically sympathetic GOP candidates.

Social conservatives who want to spotlight issues such as abortion and gay rights are the latest faction hoping to fund super PACs to elect candidates more closely aligned with their causes - setting off a potential battle with the national party and organizations such as American Crossroads that have downplayed social issues.

"If spending $400 million emphasizing economic issues doesn't win you any elections, it seems to me that to go back to the same playbook doesn't make any sense," said former GOP presidential candidate Gary Bauer. He was referring to the Crossroad groups affiliated with GOP strategist Karl Rove that failed to help Republicans take control of the Senate in 2012 elections.

"There is a very strong sense that the country is on a really bad road here and that we need something more than politics as usual," Bauer said. He helped found a super PAC that advertised during Republican Liz Cheney's short-lived Senate campaign slamming her 2009 comments opposing a constitutional ban on gay marriage.

Cheney, citing a family health crisis, this week dropped her bid to oust Republican Sen. Mike Enzi in the Republican stronghold of Wyoming.

The stakes are high for Republicans, who need a net gain of six seats to take control of the Senate. With Cheney's departure, six of 12 GOP incumbents now face primary challenges. By contrast, just one Democratic incumbent, Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz, is facing a serious challenger, Democratic Rep. Colleen Hanabusa.

The Republican-on-Republican battles reflect voters' "profound disenchantment with the government writ large and Congress in particular," said Fergus Cullen, a former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party. It's too soon to tell, however, what effect outside groups will have on elections, he said.

"A lot of it could be bravado until they prove that they can raise some money and spend it effectively," Cullen said. He warns of races being "hijacked" by groups more interested in boosting their own bank accounts than in aiding Republicans.

The public will get a look at the balance sheets of super PACs later this month when fundraising reports are due at the Federal Election Commission.

One of the best-known upstarts, The Senate Conservatives Fund, announced this week that it has helped direct more than $2 million into Senate campaigns during the last three months of 2013. The group, founded by former South Carolina senator Jim DeMint, has infuriated Republican leaders by attacking an array of GOP incumbents, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham.

If new GOP groups "are capable of bringing new issue-specific donors into the dance, we welcome that," said Jonathan Collegio, American Crossroads' spokesman. But he said smaller groups may lack the internal financial controls and oversight to reassure donors that their money is well-spent.

"Over the last three election cycles, the concerns of Americans were overwhelming on pocketbook issues," he added. "That may be changing in this cycle. It's unclear, but that's why groups have to do their research and find out what will drive folks to vote in 2014."

Crossroads has been at odds with some conservatives since it launched an operation, the Conservative Victory Project, last year to spend money in GOP congressional primaries after the party lost 2012 Senate races in Missouri and Indiana after the party's candidate made a controversial comment about rape and abortion.

David Woodard, a Clemson University political scientist and Republican strategist in South Carolina, said it's wrong to assume that anti-establishment candidates can't succeed in general elections. He cites Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., initially viewed as a long-shot Tea Party candidate in 2010 until he was boosted by DeMint's endorsement.

Bauer said he expects Republicans to find their way to common ground and coalesce around several Senate candidates, including freshman Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Ark. Cotton is challenging Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor, one of the most vulnerable Democrats up this year.

"We want to be smart about this," Bauer said. "There is not enough money sloshing around out there that you can spend a lot of it in primaries where you are not helping the overall cause, which is to get 51 reasonably conservative senators in the majority come this November."

Follow @fschouten on Twitter.




Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: Conservative money groups complicate 2014 Senate fight

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