WASHINGTON -- The tea party movement, staggered by dwindling popularity and strong challenges from the Republican establishment, faces a series of crucial primary election tests over the next month _ and its prospects look grim.
From Tuesday to June 3, Republican primaries in North Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky, Idaho and Mississippi will provide clues as to whether the grass-roots movement can regain the momentum that made it a major national force at the start of the decade.
This uncertain outlook is new territory for the tea party, a loose confederation of confident activists determined to drive down the federal debt and reduce the size and mission of government. It was credited with helping to elect 87 Republican freshmen in 2010, enough to give the party control of the House of Representatives, and it’s been responsible for helping reshape the image of the Republican Party.
Recently, the movement has struggled to match its early success. Its embrace of Senate candidates who proved too extreme for the general electorate arguably cost Republicans the five seats they needed in 2010 and 2012 to pull even with Democrats.
By the end of last year, about 1 in 5 people told Gallup they supported the movement, down from about 1 in 3 in 2010. The Republican establishment noticed, embracing some tea party views but also pouring money and resources into candidates facing insurgent challenges.
“In 2010 the establishment ignored the tea party. In 2012 they tried to get along. In 2014 they’re fighting back,” said Jennifer Duffy, Senate analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
Are they ever. Kentucky features a bruising Senate primary May 20 between one of insider Washington’s most towering figures, Senate Republican leader and 29-year incumbent Mitch McConnell, versus Louisville businessman Matt Bevin.
The same day, Georgia stages its own Republican Senate slugfest, a free-for-all in which five candidates, including tea party favorite Rep. Paul Broun, are given a decent shot of winning. In Idaho the same day, Rep. Mike Simpson, another Republican member of Congress with deep ties to official Washington, faces Idaho Falls lawyer Bryan Smith.
The first clues about the tea party’s fate will come Tuesday in North Carolina. State House Speaker Thom Tillis faces Greg Brannon, who has strong tea party backing, and the Rev. Mark Harris, a Charlotte Baptist pastor.
The fiercest fight might come at the end of this cycle, June 3 in Mississippi. Thirty-five year Senate veteran Thad Cochran, who stands to head the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee if Republicans win control of the chamber next fall, first has to defeat state Sen. Chris McDaniel.
Gauging the tea party’s influence is difficult. It’s become more politically sophisticated, setting up political action committees and getting help from a strong conservative fundraising network.
History shows that loyalists are far more likely to vote, particularly in primaries. In Mississippi, for instance, the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund plans robocalls and other strategies to find like-minded voters.
“We emphasize personal freedom, economic freedom and a debt-free future,” explained Kevin Broughton, the group’s Jackson, Miss.-based communications director.
Another group, the Tea Party Express, began a “Fighting for Liberty” bus tour April 19 that features speakers and entertainers. It stopped in Biloxi, Miss., last week, and is threading its way through the Midwest. It stopped in Kansas City and Wichita this week, hoping to help Milton Wolf, whom the Tea Party Express has endorsed over incumbent Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., in that state’s Aug. 5 primary.
Mainstream Republicans are fighting back, worried the movement will nominate candidates seen as too doctrinaire to win in November.
Here’s the outlook:
Tillis, the Washington establishment’s preferred candidate, holds a solid lead in polling and fundraising. He’s scrambling to reach the 40 percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff election and nearing an outright win. That’s despite a Democratic campaign blasting his decision to give a combined $20,000 taxpayer-funded severance to two top legislative aides who admitted to romantic affairs with lobbyists. One served as his chief of staff and roomed with Tillis in Raleigh, the state capital. Tillis said he knew nothing of the affair.
Outside groups are spending millions to help boost Tillis. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce launched a $764,000 TV ad campaign this week, adding to the roughly $1.6 million that the Karl Rove-affiliated American Crossroads has spent on television in the final weeks of the race. The National Rifle Association and National Right to Life are also helping, and GOP Gov. Pat McCrory waded into the primary to endorse him Monday.
Brannon, a Cary obstetrician, is getting help, too. Endorsed by Republican Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah, Brannon is getting help from FreedomWorks, a conservative organization, to get out the vote in the final days. As a constitutional conservative, he supports the states’ ability to nullify federal laws and wants to dismantle much of the federal government.
Harris is going even further. Despite a slow start, the former president of the state’s Baptist Convention is becoming more aggressive, suggesting that the political baggage of his two main rivals makes them unelectable in November against Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan. He’s making “values” the center of his campaign, much of which is focused on turning out the state’s evangelical community.
Simpson, an eight-term congressman, is a close ally of House Speaker John Boehner. Simpson clashed with state’s only other House member, tea party favorite Rep. Raul Labrador, when Labrador refused to vote for the Ohio Republican’s re-election as speaker last year.
Simpson said Labrador had “substantially lost credibility” and misunderstood the majority party’s responsibility to govern. Labrador replied that Simpson was a bully and “an old-school legislator that went to Washington, D.C., to compromise.”
Labrador, who unseated one-term Democratic Rep. Walt Minnick in the 2010 tea party wave, has stayed neutral in Simpson’s race against Smith.
A first-time candidate, Smith has crucial support from the Club for Growth, which is making independent expenditures on his behalf. Smith calls himself the “true conservative,” Simpson says he’s the “practical conservative.” The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups are spending money on Simpson’s behalf. Simpson has raised about $1.7 million for his campaign, Smith about $677,000.
Broun, who’s endorsed by the conservative Madison Project, offers a four-way test for legislation: “Is it right/moral? Is it constitutional? Is it necessary? Is it affordable?”
He’s stoked controversy for saying of evolution, embryology and the big-bang theory in 2012 that “all that is lies straight from the pit of hell.”
He’s also an incumbent in a year when Republican voters are down on Washington, and two strong candidates without Washington ties are vying for the Senate nomination. Businessman David Perdue is running an ad that says his opponents have “been in office for 63 years.” He implores voters to “send a different type of person to Washington.”
Erick Erickson of the influential conservative blog RedState endorsed former Secretary of State Karen Handel last week, saying his heart is with Broun but his head is with Handel.
She “does a few things Broun does not do,” he said. “She neutralizes the war on women argument (and) she is palatable to the deep pockets that Broun is not palatable to.”
They face tough opposition, though, in Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., a personable House veteran with strong appeal to more center-right Republicans _ and the backing of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Another strong competitor is Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., a six-term congressman.
Bevin has struggled from the start to gain any traction against McConnell, who had a front row seat to the first wave of the tea party revolution in 2010. He watched Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., upset McConnell’s handpicked successor to retiring Sen. Jim Bunning.
After two cycles of tea party upsets, McConnell began building his campaign early, amassing an overwhelming cash advantage and securing Paul’s endorsement. While Bevin has never materialized as much of a threat, thanks in large part to Paul’s support, McConnell made the decision early on to negatively define his challenger and answer every ad with one of his own.
Bevin’s already-struggling campaign took what looks to be a fatal blow in mid-April, when it was revealed that he’d spoken in favor of decriminalizing cockfighting in Kentucky at a pro-cockfighting rally. An undercover reporter from a Louisville television station recorded Bevin’s remarks, but the challenger maintained that he thought the rally was for states’ rights.
While McConnell appears to be headed toward a win, his margin of victory will be closely studied to determine just how much trouble the would-be Senate majority leader is in come November as he faces off against likely Democratic nominee Alison Lundergan Grimes.
The Mississippi U.S. Senate race has attracted a lot of national attention because state Sen. Chris McDaniel is the only tea party candidate who’s given much of a chance to become a viable Senate candidate from this first round of major primaries.
McDaniel created a stir last fall when he announced he was running and quickly gained support and sizable contributions from the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks and the Senate Conservatives Fund.
Cochran retains a huge money advantage and the backing of every big name in the Mississippi GOP, including former Gov. Haley Barbour, whose nephew, political strategist and Republican National Committeeman Henry Barbour, said McDaniel would “have his head handed to him.” The state tea party cried foul and later called on state Republican Party Chairman Joe Nosef to resign after he said McDaniel “has some explaining to do” about reports that he’d planned to attend a Firearm Freedom Rally that included Pace Confederate Depot among its vendors.
Also causing trouble: Audiotapes of McDaniel’s radio show from 10 years ago surfaced with the candidate cracking jokes about gays, Hispanics and “boobs.” McDaniel ended up apologizing to the Libertarian Party over jokes he’d made at its expense.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misattributed the comment that Mississippi state Sen. Chris McDaniel “would have his head handed to him.”
Dan Popkey of The Idaho Statesman in Boise, Sam Youngman of the Lexington Herald-Leader, John Frank of The (Raleigh) News & Observer and Paul Hampton of the Biloxi Sun Herald contributed to this story.