DAVIDSON, N.C. -- The feisty personalities and anti-establishment fervor that fed Tea Party challenges in recent Republican U.S. Senate primaries are largely missing this year, a troubling sign for Democrats who want the GOP to nominate candidates with limited appeal.
In North Carolina, a once-promising clash between an establishment Republican and two harder-right rivals has yet to catch fire, with the May 6 primary approaching. Longtime activists say they find little awareness, let alone excitement, among conservative voters, even though Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan is a top target in November.
Asked about Democrats who say North Carolina Republicans are fighting a "civil war," Marcus Kindley, former Guilford County GOP chairman, said, "They wish."
The picture is similar elsewhere.
Early pledges to oust Republican senators seen as insufficiently ideological by some Tea Partyers fizzled in Texas, South Carolina and Tennessee. In Kentucky, Tea Party-backed Matt Bevin is struggling against Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell.
A Colorado Tea Partyer stepped aside to let a congressman run unimpeded for the Senate. In Georgia, the Tea Party has not coalesced around any of the seven GOP Senate candidates.
These contests show that the Tea Party's dramatic emergence in 2009 and 2010 doesn't guarantee continued success. Conservative insurgencies need the right mix of money, angry and energized voters, magnetic personalities, and some degree of campaign experience among those running furthest to the right.
Insufficient conservatism is the charge leveled by anti-establishment candidates who rocked the Republican Party in the past two elections by winning Senate nominations in nearly a dozen states.
Those candidates went on to win the general elections in Utah, Kentucky and Texas. But they suffered painful defeats in Delaware, Nevada, Indiana and other states, enabling Democrats to keep control of the Senate.
With establishment Republicans saying they won't be caught napping again -- and sending cash to favored candidates -- insurgent campaigns are struggling.
North Carolina's Senate race fits that mold so far.
At one of last week's two televised debates last week, Greg Brannon, a Tea Party candidate, and another from the Christian right, the Rev. Mark Harris, barely made a dent in Thom Tillis, the establishment favorite.
Running their first campaigns, they seemed unable or unwilling to paint Mr. Tillis as too accommodating to Democrats. That allowed Mr. Tillis to minimize his differences with them.
"I think we're all conservatives," he said at one point during a debate at Davidson College. No one challenged him on the point.
The tepid dynamics of the GOP primary fight so far have enabled Mr. Tillis to focus mostly on Ms. Hagan and the Nov. 4 general election. Nationwide, Republicans need to gain six seats to win the Senate majority.