Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
February 11, 2016

Tea Party Tested: In One Month, Establishment on Defense

Cochran faces a June 3 primary. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

A seven-week gauntlet of Republican Senate primaries kicking off next month will decide the fate of the tea party’s success this year.

If a Republican senator loses a primary this year, it will more than likely occur in a span of nominating contests premiering in one month. Incumbents got the boot thanks to tea-party-backed hopefuls in both 2010 and 2012, and those lesser known Republican nominees went on to both triumphs and failures.

In the third election cycle since the rise of the tea party, fundraising and organization remain significant hurdles for anti-establishment candidates. The outside groups helping to fuel many of the primary campaigns concede they are realistic about their slim chances against incumbents and mainstream Republican candidates.

Still, tea party organizers said they remain hopeful about picking off a few House seats and perhaps a couple Senate seats in their continued pursuit of increased congressional influence.

“Some of our guys could lose, many of them could lose. We understand that,” said Daniel Horowitz of the Madison Project, which recruits and supports conservative candidates. “We take calculated risks. We want to see a path, but it’s very much an uphill path in many of these races, especially if you’re going up against an incumbent and even some of the open seats where you’re starting out with a lot less money.”

But, Horowitz added, “on a large scale we have already won by forcing most of the incumbents to embrace, at least publicly, many of our policies.”

The races to watch begin May 6 in North Carolina, followed by Nebraska on May 13, Kentucky and Georgia on May 20, Mississippi on June 3 and South Carolina on June 10. South Dakota’s open seat has also invited a June 3 primary with similar dynamics, but it has drawn less outside interest than the others.

Senate candidates aiming to unseat longtime Republicans gathered over the weekend in the Bluegrass State, considered ground zero for the anti-establishment this year. The April 5 Louisville, Ky., meeting dubbed FreePAC was intended to fire up thousands of conservative activists from around the country for the final weeks before the primaries. And the rally was timed and located specifically to give a boost to Louisville businessman Matt Bevin in the final sprint of his uphill challenge to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

Bevin, who has attacked the five-term senator for not fighting hard enough against the president’s health care law, was scheduled to be among a handful of tea party darlings on stage. The other Senate candidate was Mississippi state Sen. Chris McDaniel, whose challenge to six-term Sen. Thad Cochran is widely viewed as more likely to succeed.

McDaniel is backed by the Club for Growth and Senate Conservatives Fund, which have both aired TV ads on his behalf. Meanwhile, Cochran’s late decision to seek re-election and his lack of an existing political operation put him at a disadvantage for his first legitimate challenge in 30 years. He and his allies have since pushed the campaign into high gear.

But after Republican Sens. Robert Bennett of Utah and Richard G. Lugar of Indiana were defeated in a 2010 convention and 2012 primary, respectively, Cochran’s delayed preparation is an exception among his colleagues. For the most part, incumbents with conservative targets on their backs have been proactive, rather than reactive.

“Republican senators have learned their lessons of the last two cycles and prepared themselves early for primary challenges, and that hard work is paying off,” said Brian Walsh, a GOP consultant and adviser to the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “What’s unfortunate, though, is that for the third cycle in a row, D.C.-based conservative groups have spent millions of dollars win-or-lose attacking other Republicans to the benefit of Democrats.”

McConnell and his allies have poured several million dollars onto the Kentucky airwaves for his primary campaign, and he is favored to move on to face Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes in a competitive general-election contest.

McConnell and his Kentucky Senate colleague Rand Paul are supporting opposing candidates in the North Carolina primary. The minority leader and national Republicans back state Speaker Thom Tillis, while Paul and Utah Sen. Mike Lee are backing physician and tea party activist Greg Brannon. With pastor Mark Harris also in the running, the contest to take on top Republican target Sen. Kay Hagan, a Democrat, could stretch all the way to a July 15 runoff.

Tea party groups will claim victory the following week in Nebraska, should Ben Sasse, Midland University president and a former Bush administration official, beat former state Treasurer Shane Osborn in that open-seat GOP primary. Sasse has been on a fundraising tear, raising $850,000 in the first quarter. He also recently landed on the cover of the conservative National Review and is viewed by some as a future senator in the mold of Oklahoma’s Tom Coburn.

The following Tuesday will decide McConnell’s fate. Just as interesting on May 20 is the race for the GOP Senate nod in Georgia. With no clear front-runner, two Republicans in the crowded primary field will likely advance to a July 22 runoff. Republican strategists in Washington and Atlanta fear tea-party-backed Rep. Paul Broun will be nominated and give Democrats a golden opportunity to pick up a seat — and maybe even save their majority.

Cochran’s last stand will be next, and then South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham will be on the hook on June 10. The second-term Republican is pushing hard to avoid a runoff on June 24, when a one-on-one race with one of his so-far underwhelming challengers could invite a splash of outside spending.

“Between now and the end of June, we’re wholly focused on winning those primaries,” said Adam Brandon, executive vice president of FreedomWorks. “Our goal is to expand the freedom caucus. I want to make sure Ted Cruz, Mike Lee and Rand Paul have one or two more senators to join them.”

  • Nick10

    Daniel Horowitz said. “Some of our guys could lose, many of them could lose.” He got that right.
    Illinois had no Tea Party Senators. Illinois did have one Tea Party Congressman – Joe Walsh – who ran and lost only one term. In 2012 Walsh lost by a margin of 10%.
    Tea Party candidates came and went in the first part of this decade. A brief fling that did not remain. The Tea Party is in decline.

  • Layla

    I disagree. Republican’s in the Senate have not learned their lesson. They still place the members of the US Chamber ahead of their constituents and the people now know this. There has been no help on Obamacare and amnesty is being pushed on both sides.

    Ladies and Gentlemen, it is time to send you home.

  • Joe

    Joe Walsh ran Melissa Bean out of the House. Then Illinois lost a House seat after the census and State government gerrymandered Roskum’s district to include most R voters. This left Walsh with the option of running against R Hultgren in the 14th or D Duckworth in the newly D gerrymandered 8th. He chose to go against Duckworth. The D’s were extremely afraid of Walsh and made him there number one target for extinction in Illinois. After all he espoused way to much common sense and was not shy in pointing out all the weak policy decisions being made by the D’s in Washington.

    They coupled the Obama and Emanuel machines together to supply money, ground forces, and the ever present pre-filled ballot boxes associated with elections in Illinois, especially the Cook county area.

    Now you can tell a part of the story and claim that the Tea Party is in decline but if that is the case why did the D’s both federally and locally have to spend so much time, money and effort to get Walsh out?

  • Nick10

    First of all Illinois loses U.S. House seats after every decade. Four U.S. Houseseats lost in the last three decades.

    You may recall this or not. Joe Walsh didn’t run Melissa Bean out of the House. A third independent Bill Scheurer [who tried and failed many times who you don’t know] was also opposed to Bean. Two against one. Bean lost due to Scheurer which was clear for most.

    Tea Party candidate Joe Walsh came and went in the first part of this decade. One term only. Tea Party’s brief fling that did not remain. In 2012 Tammy Duckwprth defeated Joe Walsh by 10%. That 10% win means that Joe Walsh lost by a large margin not by a slim win against Melissa Bean with help as described above. Not much more to discuss.

  • Nick10

    Last two paragraphs are dubious.

  • Nick10


  • Nick10

    “The D’s were extremely afraid of Walsh” Afraid? Joe Walsh lost by 10 percentage points.

  • Joe

    You clearly like to ignore the gerrymandering that took place. Tammy Duckworth lost her first election, then had a district carefully crafted by our upright, honest, hardworking legislature down in Springfield which just may have led to a 10% victory (In case you don’t comprehend gerrymandering the Illinois legislature combined two red districts into one, the 6th, and created the remaining into a super blue, the new Illinois 8th, I should know I lived in the 8th till it became the 6th). Of course I am being sarcastic when I use those terms to describe Illinois politicians of all ilk. Joe Walsh never had a chance in the district but he still put up a fight which is something you will never get from most Illinois republicans. Cases in point, Kirk, Roskam, Ryan, etc, just go down the list these guys are dying to work with the D’s.

    The State of Illinois has been run by the Democratic machine for decades, why do you think we rank near the bottom in job creation and near the top in population flight. We are close to bankruptcy in the city of Chicago and the state as a whole, but hey those guys in the Tea Party they are a flash in the pan no point in trying to become solvent again.

    Wait till the long and short blades come out for Rauner, he could be a Tea Party guy so you know that all the ugliest rhetoric on the left is just waiting to be released to destroy his campaign. Based on what you say though, the left can just sit back because the Tea Party is out, Pat Quinn can order new carpet and blinds no worries. Why is it that I think the left is taking Rauner very seriously, heck they tried their best to destroy him in the primary and pass though someone that was already solidly on the plantation, Kirk Dillard. The D’s were telling their voters to cross over for Dillard, anything to keep Rauner out. I would call this behavior being afraid, of course Dems call it business as usual, how’d Hillary put it “the politics of personal destruction” I guess she was just projecting.

    I also find it very stimulating that my “dubious” paragraphs are to be so easily dismissed by my betters. Thanks for that, enjoy your day.

  • teapartyidiots

    He beat Melissa Bean by 300 votes and got shellacked by Duckworth. His district was mainly based in DuPage and Kane Counties – only Schaumberg, and part of Elgin are in Cook.

  • teapartyidiots

    Um….because the Republicans NEVER gerrymander.

  • teapartyidiots

    Rauner supports equality, and reproductive rights. He’s no tea partier.

  • Joe

    Another fellow Illinoisian who knows all about our state elections!

  • Joe

    Never said they didn’t, next.

  • Joe

    I guess you have a definition of the Tea Party, care to share? I think you should take off the blinders and try not to pigeonhole everyone you hear you’re supposed to disagree with. Good luck with that.

  • ShadrachSmith

    But, Horowitz added, “on a large scale we have already won by forcing most of the incumbents to embrace, at least publicly, many of our policies.”

    The Tea Party is a small government wing of the Republican party. Our influence is dependent on the willingness of the voters to agree with our goals. Small-government advocates are simply a natural part of the American political landscape. One of the good parts :-)

  • Joe

    Well put.

  • teapartyidiots

    Most Tea Party candidates are vehemently anti abortion and contraception, and marriage equality. Joe Walsh’s numbers tanked when he said that abortion should not be allowed EVEN if the mother’s life is in danger. I live in IL, I remember quite well why he lost.

  • Joe

    Read ShadrachSmith’s comment below. There is an individual who has by far a better understanding of what the tea party stands for. You on the other hand are either trying to define what they are so you can cast aspersions on them as a whole or are reading someone else’s definition that makes you upset and angry. I am sorry for that but the extent of the Tea Parties interest is all contained in the first three letters.

    The need for people on the left to define groups by the beliefs of individual candidates is quite astounding. All candidates can have an individual belief that may not have anything to do with a groups platform, but it easier to point a finger and scream than to have reasoned debate.

    Back in 2008 there was a Presidential candidate who clearly stated that marriage be between a man and a woman. Personally, I don’t care about this topic, it has no business in our government. The funny thing is that candidate who is now living in the White House still receives full support from the haters on the left that would want any conservative who said these things be drawn and quartered. Funny how that works out, keep hating people you don’t know but pretend too, and again best of luck to you.

  • Nick10

    Elgin is not in Cook. Kane. Schaumberg and many other suburbs in Cook County are one half of the the 8th District.

  • teapartyidiots

    Parts of Elgin are in Cook. I said that Schaumberg is in Cook, and yes, sorry I forgot Elk Grove Village.

  • Nick10

    Cook County includes Schaumburg Plus: Barrington, Elk Grove, Hanover, Palatine, and Wheeling. Most of Elgin is in Kane County. I know. I did a poll there in 2012 with known voters eligible to vote in the Eighth Congressional district. Cook County area is one-half of of the 8th CD.
    But you were close.

  • Osaka Williams

    Since judging merit requires certain people to judge the efforts of others, the objective utility of any results delivered is irrelevant.

  • Osaka Williams

    Those who advocate incremental property confiscation in the name of “fairness” are as much a threat to liberty as their Marxist forefathers.

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