• Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Subscribe
  • RSS

Tea Party Set To Lose Its Final Two Battles In Kansas And Tennessee

Elephants Fighting

With the exception of the surprise defeat of Eric Cantor in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District, in which national Tea Party groups were not even involved, the Tea Party has not had a good primary season against targeted Republican incumbents. It started in February when efforts to unseat the second highest ranking Republican in the Senate, Texas Senator John Cornyn, ended in failure thanks in large part to a lack of credible challengers. In Kentucky, Matt Bevin’s campaign received strong support from Freedomworks and other national Tea Party groups in their efforts to do the unthinkable and defeat Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell only to see Bevin consistently trail in the polls and lose the election by nearly 100,000 votes. In South Carolina, the efforts to take down Senator Lindsey Graham, who was a Tea Party target even before McConnell was, fizzled out fairly quickly and Graham ended up easily defeating a crowded field, beating his closest opponent by some 130,000 votes. The closest the Tea Party has come to beating an incumbent came in Mississippi, where Chris McDaniel actually did defeat Senator Thad Cochran in the first round on June 4th but failed to get enough votes to avoid a runoff. In the end, of course, Cochran ended up winning the election by more than 6,000 votes.

With those defeats behind them, Tea Party forces now seem likely to face defeat in their final two battles against incumbents in Kansas and Tennessee:

WASHINGTON — Like most incumbent Republican senators this year who are facing a primary challenge from the right, Pat Roberts of Kansas refused a one-on-one debate against his hard-line opponent.

With the clock ticking, Mr. Roberts’s opponent, Milton Wolf, felt an urgent need to shake up the race before Tuesday’s primary. So he confronted the incumbent with TV cameras rolling as the three-term senator walked in downtown Emporia, Kan., last week. It did not seem to help: Mr. Roberts brushed off Mr. Wolf, an aide to the senator criticized the challenger’s “stunts,” and as Mr. Roberts spoke inside a business, Mr. Wolf’s campaign bus honked before eventually driving off.

Mr. Wolf, a 43-year-old radiologist and distant cousin of President Obama, has not been able to get much traction in his race against Mr. Roberts, 78, despite months of hammering the congressman-turned-senator as a creature of Washington who does not have a home of his own in Kansas.

Mr. Wolf has faced the same challenge as State Representative Joe Carr, the most formidable Republican taking on Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee in their state primary on Thursday. Despite challenging septuagenarian incumbents with clear vulnerabilities in states with increasingly conservative Republican electorates, neither Mr. Wolf nor Mr. Carr was able to raise significant money to finance an aggressive ad campaign or attract the Club for Growth, the most financially potent of the third-party groups that back Tea Party candidates.

By mid-July, Mr. Roberts had raised just under $4.5 million while Mr. Wolf had brought in a little over $1 million. The financial disparity between Mr. Alexander and Mr. Carr was even wider — Mr. Alexander had raised over $6.6 million to Mr. Carr’s $1.1 million.

Both senators also moved early to secure endorsements from state officials and from members of their congressional delegation, pre-empting challenges from those who could have potentially been their most formidable opponents.

Senate Republicans who have been prepared for challenges from the right have won easily. The one Republican senator who nearly lost his bid for renomination, Thad Cochran of Mississippi, had done little to get ready for his re-election before he suddenly announced late last year that he intended to seek a seventh term.

“As opposed to Senator Cochran, Lamar has been engaged in this race from go,” said Gov. Bill Haslam of Tennessee, a Republican.

Mr. Alexander, 74, began his political career 40 years ago with a failed bid for governor. Now, he is a former two-term governor and national education secretary who enjoys a deep relationship with many of his state’s voters. But his brand of center-right politics has made him vulnerable to a more ideologically driven candidate in a state where an earlier generation of moderate Republicans is being replaced by a mix of more conservative younger voters, new arrivals to the state and former Democrats.

Mr. Carr, 56, who has been attracting little notice from state and national conservatives for months, has finally begun to draw attention by criticizing Mr. Alexander for his vote last year on a comprehensive immigration overhaul that includes a pathway to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally that the right deems an amnesty.

(…)

Mr. Wolf has relentlessly attacked Mr. Roberts for claiming that a room in the Dodge City home of a pair of campaign donors is listed as his voting address. And Mr. Roberts may have reinforced questions about his residency when, in a July radio interview, he said he returned to Kansas “every time I get an opponent.”

“If you’re an incumbent with 100 percent name ID and your ballot score is lower than the number of years you’ve been in Washington, you should be worried,” said Jason Miller, Mr. Wolf’s strategist, referring to some automated polls that the campaign is using that show Mr. Roberts is below 50 percent. The senator began working in the United States Capitol as a congressional aide 47 years ago.

But if Mr. Wolf ever had an opening it may have been lost when The Topeka Capital-Journal reported in February that the radiologist had posted gruesome X-rays of dead patients on Facebook along with inappropriate commentary about their condition. It almost certainly cost him the Club for Growth endorsement, and Mr. Roberts has continued to seize on the matter ever since, using the final weeks before the primary to broadcast TV ads reminding voters about the X-rays and Mr. Wolf’s accompanying commentary.

“Our polling has held up well, and there had been a steady increase in the number of voters with concern about Wolf’s character issues,” said Leroy Towns, Mr. Roberts’s campaign manager.

If both Mr. Alexander and Mr. Roberts win, it would be a significant victory for Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican minority leader, who this year vowed to “crush” conservative challenges of incumbent senators.

When this election cycle began, Pat Roberts looked like he might be one of those incumbents who actually had something to worry about. As I noted when I wrote about this in February, the residency issue is one that had been used very effectively against Indiana Senator Richard Lugar in 2012 and had the potential to do the same with Roberts this year.  In the Lugar/Mourdock race, the residency issue ended up becoming a proxy for the argument that the long-serving Senator had lost touch with his constituents and his home state and, in the case of the base of the Indiana Republican Party, was obviously a big part of the reason that a man who had easily won election to the Senate every time he ran since 1976 was defeated so easily by a relatively unknown candidate. Roberts seemed to suffer from many of the same problems but, unlike Lugar, he acted quickly to address them, both on the merits of the residency claim and the overall issue of being connected to voters. To address the second issue, Roberts embarked on a serious of  ”listening tour” events across the state that have continued right up to the eve of today’s primary. That, combined with the Roberts’s obvious fundraising advantages and the fact that he has used that to great effect in Kansas media, along with Wolf’s own mis-steps along the way appear to have been more than enough. While there has not been much independent polling of the Roberts-Wolf race, there has been enough to indicate that the Senator will likely win quite handily today.

In Tennessee, the situation has been markedly different. In some sense, Lamar Alexander has benefited from the same type of crowded field of challengers that Lindsey Graham faced in his own primary race earlier this year, thus making it difficult for support to coalesce around a single challenger. Additionally, since Tennessee does not have runoff elections like South Carolina, from the beginning Alexander only needed to worry about getting a pluarlity of the vote rather than getting past the 50% threshold like Graham and others have. Additionally, notwithstanding the fact that Tea Party adherents have been critical of him, Alexander seems to have a far deeper well of support in his home state from which to draw thanks in no small part to his time as Governor and the fact that he doesn’t seem to have forgotten the cardinal rule of politics; that one needs to stay close to your constituents. By all accounts, the challenges to Alexander never really had any chance from the start and, while polling has been light in the Volunteer State as well, what independent polling there has been has shown that the incumbent has very little to worry about in Thursday’s primary.

In many respects, these battles in Kansas and Tennessee are something of a quiet end to what had once seemed like it would be an epic battle between the Tea Party and “establishment” wings of the Republican Party. In some sense, of course, that is exactly what happened in Kentucky, South Carolina, and Mississippi and, in the end, the establishment ended up winning. Tea Party forces also suffered setbacks in states such as North Carolina, where State House Speaker Thom Tillis held off a Tea Party backed challenger in the primary, and Georgia, where the two candidates that advanced to the runoff were both more clearly aligned with the Chamber of Commerce/establishment wing of the GOP than the Tea Party. To the extent where we have seen Tea Party backed candidates win, it has been in states such as Iowa and Nebraska where candidates like Joni Ernst and Ben Sasse managed to garner support from both wings of the Republican Party and the “showdown” never really materialized. There has been some success for Tea Party candidates in the House, such as David Brat in the 7th District in Virginia, and John Ratcliffe in Texas, who defeated Ralph Hall, the longest serving Republican in the House. Beyond that, however, 2014 has been largely an electoral disaster for the Tea Party.

The question, of course, is whether this record of defeat will end up harming the Tea Party movement in general, or at least the fundraising efforts of national organizations such as Freedomworks, Club For Growth, and Senate Conservative Fund in particular. After all, if donors are looking at these things objectively one would think that they would realize that they aren’t getting their monies worth from donating to these groups. Similarly, given the relative inability of the Tea Party movement as a whole to actually accomplish anything one would think that supporters would start to drift away as they realize that their efforts are for naught. While there has been some drop off in donations to national groups over the past year or so, to some extent likely a result of their disastrous advocacy of the government shutdown scheme, there has been no sign, however, that the movement itself is wanting at all. Indeed, I would suspect that the Tea Party will remain a vocal force inside the Republican Party for some time to come, and most assuredly though the 2016 elections.

Related Posts:

About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    The Republican Party is now a wholly owned subsidiary of Koch Industries, Inc. How is that losing?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2

  2. CSK says:

    You said it best: “A vocal force.” The fact that they’re incredibly noisy makes it difficult to determine exactly how big the TP membership actually is. I suspect not as large as they’d like you to think; most of their candidates went down to ignominious defeat. The fact that they choose such major league flakes to represent them doesn’t help much, either.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  3. C. Clavin says:

    given the relative inability of the Tea Party movement as a whole to actually accomplish anything

    Au contraire, mon frere.
    Look at the so-called border crisis…the Tea Baggers got everything they wanted when the House voted to do absolutely nothing about the massive threat they have been fulminating over all summer. Steve King (wingnut; IA) who thinks all young undocumented immigrants are all drug mules with enormous calf muscles:

    “The changes brought into this are ones I’ve developed and advocated for over the past two years…It’s like I ordered it off the menu.”

    The wingnuts are running the Republican Party now…losing an election or three doesn’t matter. Lose some battles…win the war.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  4. gVOR08 says:

    That’s what I haven’t been able to figure out. Did the TP lose to the establishment, or did they become the establishment? Or more precisely, did the elite “Koch Bros wing”, for lack of a better label, take over the party and no longer need the Tea Party proletariat mob?

    As the Republicans shed some of the visible craziness, don’t forget that the TP has been a lot of fun, but it’s the Republican establishment that:
    – gave us the Reagan recession, the Bush recession, the Bush recession, and finally a financial collapse
    – gave us the Iraq war, the Afghanistan war, and the Iraq war – and totally mismanaged at least the last two
    – squandered a budget surplus on tax cuts, unfunded Medicare Part D, and foreign wars
    – made torture US policy
    – refuse to do anything about global warming

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 1

  5. gVOR08 says:

    Doug, please let one of my comments out of purgatory. (It bounced as a reply to Clavin, so I tried the same comment again without a reply link.) I didn’t even use any bad language. Thank you.

    [Done - MB]

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  6. JohnMcC says:

    TeaPartiers have as little interest in actually running a newly captured Repub party as they do in actually governing the US. What they want is for the GOP to reflect their fears and hopes without they themselves doing any of the boring and difficult work of a national organization.

    In that, they have won a nearly complete victory by losing every primary. How is that not obvious?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  7. Matt Bernius says:

    There has been some success for Tea Party candidates in the House, such as David Brat in the 7th District in Virginia, and John Ratcliffe in Texas, who defeated Ralph Hall, the longest serving Republican in the House. Beyond that, however, 2014 has been largely an electoral disaster for the Tea Party.

    I think this is a critical point — where the Tea Party continues and will continue to have the most success in going after the establishment is in the House where districting and local politics makes it much easier to unseat candidates than at the state or national level. It’s also, the place where their effect can be best felt as once they win the primary, they are all but guaranteed the position.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  8. Siegfried Heydrich says:

    @C. Clavin: Actually, that’s only because of the ‘Hastert Rule’, which says that a GOP speaker can only put forth a bill if it will pass with only republican votes. The simple fact of the matter is that Boehner simply ignores the democrats in the House, and doesn’t even try to work with them in the least. Given that, the TP caucus essentially has the power to veto any bills in the House before they can even come up for a vote.

    But . . . once the midterms are over and done with, given that the TP has been crushed like an empty Bud can in the primaries, their usefulness is at an end. More than that, they’re a liability, damaging the party brand name, alienating everyone outside of their base, and wost of all, they’re bad for business. I think you’re going to see the GOP make a hard pivot towards sanity, abandon the Hastert rule, and start working with the dems.

    To be honest, it’s their only viable survival strategy. Their base has nowhere near the numbers to carry a national election, and if they don’t start appealing to the general electorate rather than their base, they’re done for. And they know it. Besides, the House Speaker hands out all the Committee assignments, and you can bet he’ll have a grin that would make the Grinch stare in astonishment as he cuts all of the TP caucus out of any power whatsoever. Paybacks are, well, you know . . .

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  9. C. Clavin says:

    @Siegfried Heydrich:

    I think you’re going to see the GOP make a hard pivot towards sanity, abandon the Hastert rule, and start working with the dems.

    I wish you were right about that….but I suspect that it’s more likely you will be proven to be delusional. The Party of Stupid is the Party of Stupid for a reason.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  10. Anthony Kight says:

    911 !!! Tea Bag Down !!!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  11. MartinAustinTX says:

    The liberals can’t seem to make up their mind. Either the Tea Party controls the Republican Party or they have no power at all. The Tea Party are patriotic Americans who are unhappy with the Establishment represented by both Parties. The Democrats have intimidated Republicans for so long they don’t know how to act when they are challenged by principled persons.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 4

  12. Barry says:

    @gVOR08: “As the Republicans shed some of the visible craziness, don’t forget that the TP has been a lot of fun, but it’s the Republican establishment that:”

    Bullsh*t. The alleged Tea Party was voting for Bush and Cheney the entire time; they didn’t become ‘shocked! shocked!’ at these things until the GOP lost the Presidency and the House and the Senate.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  13. Barry says:

    @MartinAustinTX: “The liberals can’t seem to make up their mind. Either the Tea Party controls the Republican Party or they have no power at all. The Tea Party are patriotic Americans who are unhappy with the Establishment represented by both Parties. The Democrats have intimidated Republicans for so long they don’t know how to act when they are challenged by principled persons. ”

    D*mn, but that was perfect! No smidgeon of truth whatsoever.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0