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Primaries set up key battles for Senate control

WASHINGTON — Primaries in six U.S. states Tuesday will set up key battlegrounds for November elections, when Republicans hope to gain control of the Senate and the power to effectively shut down President Barack Obama’s legislative agenda for his final two years in office.

If the Republicans pick up the six seats they need in the 100-member Senate, it would put them in control of both houses of Congress. They already have a big majority in the House of Representatives and are virtually certain of maintaining control there.

The Republicans have several advantages. Historically, the party that controls the White House loses seats in Congress in midterm elections that take place between presidential votes. Obama’s low approval ratings will likely drag down Democrat candidates.

The most closely watched of Tuesday’s primaries are in Kentucky and Georgia. Seeking the Democratic nomination in those states are two women from political dynasties who represent their party’s best — and perhaps only — shot of picking up Republican-held Senate seats.

A Democratic victory in either of the two southern states would seriously dent Republican hopes of regaining the majority.

The Kentucky and Georgia Senate races have attracted international attention and impressive sums of money. Candidates already have spent more than $32 million, with $26 million by Republicans. Yet both contests are likely to be settled by a small share of the electorate in a midterm year marked by antipathy toward the president and both parties in Congress.

In Kentucky, polls show the Republican incumbent, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, is vulnerable in a November match-up against Alison Lundergan Grimes, who is favored to secure the Democratic nomination Tuesday.

McConnell has been the target of fierce accusations from the ultraconservative tea party wing of his party for being too willing to compromise with the Democrats. Nonetheless, the veteran senator is expected to easily fend off a primary challenge from tea party-backed candidate Matt Bevin and secure the Republican nomination.

Republican establishment candidates this year have been determinedly beating back tea party challengers who Republican leaders consider too radical to win in November. That accounts to some degree for McConnell’s expected win in the primary.

McConnell has tried to cast himself as a fighter determined to thwart Obama’s legislative agenda. Bevin has the backing of some tea party groups who criticize the incumbent for reaching deals with the Democrats to end last year’s government shutdown.

In Republican-leaning Georgia, Michelle Nunn has a smooth glide to the Democratic nomination, while seven Republicans are scrambling to gain an edge in the primary race for the right to seek the seat being vacated by retiring Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss. The Republican primary race is expected to whittle the field to two candidates who will face off in a July 22 runoff.

Grimes and Nunn have tried to frame themselves as centrists and capitalize on voters’ obvious frustrations: Obama’s job approval rating is in the low 40s nationally, and approval for Congress in recent years has consistently been less than half that figure.

But Nunn’s clear path to the nomination hit a bump as she juggled the political realities of Obama’s controversial health care overhaul in her conservative state. In an interview with NBC News, the daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn refused to say how she would have voted on the health care law if she had been a senator in 2010, when it was passed. She later tried to clarify her remarks, but still didn’t answer the question.

Georgia’s seven Republicans primary candidates have all called for repeal of the health care reform law, which Republicans deride as “Obamacare.” Nunn previously has criticized her potential Republican rivals for a “run to extremes,” including in their absolute opposition to the health law.

Senate races also are on the ballot in Arkansas, Idaho and Oregon on Tuesday, and there are primary contests for governor and some congressional seats in Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Idaho, Georgia and Oregon.

STEVEN R. HURST, Associated Press

Associated Press writers Bill Barrow and Christina A. Cassidy in Atlanta and Adam Beam in Frankfort, Kentucky, contributed to this report.