A strong showing in 2010 gives Republicans confidence about winning the big prize in 2012, but they have to get out of their own way first.

The big prize is United States Senator Claire McCaskill’s seat, which she took from Republican Jim Talent six years ago. That race was close. McCaskill defeated Talent by less than 50,000 votes out of more than two million cast. Compare that November of 2010. Republican Roy Blunt easily defeated Democrat Robin Carnahan for US Senate, winning by more than 260,000 votes out of just under two million cast.

Talent declined a rematch, opening the race up to a host of Republicans. Congressman Sam Graves and Congresswoman Jo Ann Emerson considered a run, then decided to stay put. Former Treasurer Sarah Steelman wasted no time in entering the race. The former chief of staff for Governor Blunt, Ed Martin, has declared his candidacy. Others might follow.

State Republican Party Chairman David Cole acknowledges a primary challenge worries him.

“You’re always concerned that the potential that a primary could become divisive and destructive. It doesn’t have to be that way,” Cole tells the Missourinet.

State Republican Chairwoman Ann Wagner, who is considering a Senate run herself, says a primary could cripple the GOP’s chances to win the race.

“If it’s a bloody, expensive primary, it will be very tough. I think it will,” Wagner tells the Missourinet. “We’ve seen that in the past. Whether it was in the most recent gubernatorial race or one two decades ago, back in 1992, it’s very tough.”

Republican leaders believe they missed a great chance to keep the governor’s office in the party’s hands in 2008. The party favorite, northeast Missouri Congressman Kenny Hulshof, was challenged by Steelman. Hulshof squeaked out the primary victory only to lose in a landslide to Democrat Jay Nixon.

Republicans still talk about 1992 as if it occurred only a few election cycles ago. Many believe the three-way battle in that gubernatorial primary tore the party apart and gave Democrat Mel Carnahan the issue he needed to defeat Republican Bill Webster in the general election.

One who knows about that divisive 1992 Republican primary is Senator Blunt. Then Secretary of State Blunt, Attorney General Webster and Treasurer Wendell Bailey fought it out. The Republican Party lost.

Blunt says he’s not sure how many really remember that 1992 campaign and isn’t sure what that history teaches the party today. He does say that a primary’s effect on the general election depends on the type of primary it becomes.

“At this point, my guess would be that a primary focused on the issues is healthy, a primary focused on individuals is not healthy,” Blunt says in an interview with the Missourinet, “but I think the issues are big enough that that’s likely to be what any primary is about.”

More recent history might be more comforting for the party. Chairman Cole reminds us that the Republican primary battle for State Auditor between Tom Schweich and Allen Icet didn’t hurt Schweich’s campaign to upset Democratic incumbent Susan Montee, who he defeated in November’s general election.

AUDIO: Brent Martin reports [1:30 MP3]