The Tea Party may not have the national clout it did a couple years ago, but in selected congressional races, the loose coalition of conservative-focused groups is certainly making its presence known. It’s doing that through well-financed primary challenges to established Republicans who simply aren’t conservative enough for the Tea Party’s taste.
In states and districts where victory doesn't seem totally out of reach, Tea Party organizations have been generously funding the underdogs in GOP primaries against far more established lawmakers – the so-called RINOs -“Republicans in Name Only,” according to a new analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics.
“In this intra-party battle, the Tea Party’s rallying cry has been that many incumbents aren’t true representatives of the conservative cause,” the analysis concluded.
There’s been no lack of carefully targeted campaign spending on either side of the political spectrum for years, especially in high-stakes election years. Some within the Tea Party also maintain that a heightened local focus has always been key for them – and that the recent IRS targeting of their groups “had a silencing effect” that has now finally receded. “Now, Tea Party groups have learned to better express their grievances with government and to effect the political process,” Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, told The Fiscal Times several months ago. “The movement has grown and matured.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio – the two biggest targets of the far right – have taken a hard line against outside conservative advocacy groups such as Club for Growth, Heritage Action and the Senate Conservatives Fund, which are backing Tea Party challengers instead of more establishment GOP lawmakers.
Four other veteran Republican senators – Lindsey Graham in South Carolina, Pat Roberts in Kansas, Thad Cochran in Mississippi and Lamar Alexander in Tennessee – also face primary challengers who are being backed by some outside groups.
A few of these organizations have sharply criticized Boehner, McConnell and others for going along with bipartisan budget deals on new spending and raising the debt ceiling, rather than embracing the small-government, fix-the-debt beliefs of Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and other more combative Tea Party adherents.
Other veteran House Republicans, including Walter B. Jones, Jr., of North Carolina, Mike Simpson of Idaho, and Cory Gardner of Colorado, are also feeling the heat from challengers that are more conservative and their backers.
However, as The New York Times noted over the weekend, “The Tea Party may be nudging Republicans to the right in Congress with the implicit threat of primary challenges, but when it comes to recruiting quality challengers to take out incumbent senators, it is falling decidedly short.”
A case in point is Graham, a veteran member of Congress who should have been a prime target for a Tea Party challenge because he helped write the Senate comprehensive reform of immigration laws that promises a pathway to citizenship for many illegal immigrants. He also expressed a willingness to raise taxes as part of a “Grand Bargain” budget deal.
Both positions are considered blasphemy to the Tea Party faithful. Yet none of the six Republicans in South Carolina’s House delegation or any statewide elected official has moved against Graham. Instead, he is being challenged by a group of relative no-names in the June primary.
Boehner has charged that the true goals of some of the conservative groups challenging the GOP incumbents was to raise money and expand their organizations, not fight for any particular principle or policy. “They’re using our members, and they’re using the American people for their own goals,” said Boehner.
What’s more, as they sense that Republican control of both chambers of Congress is within their reach for the first time in nearly eight years, McConnell and other top Republicans are challenging the advocacy groups head-on to try to undermine their credibility and deny them victories in the Senate races.
“I think we are going to crush them everywhere,” McConnell told The New York Times last month.
While nearly all of the targeted Republican incumbents are expected to weather their primary challenges, they can’t afford to take anything for granted as they fend off well-financed challenges. From the Center for Responsive Politics, here is a list of the six best-financed challengers and speculation on the race:
1. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) - $1.4 million so far spent against him
While some are busy “#McConnelling,” conservative outside groups have made more serious efforts to embarrass the Senate minority leader. Conservative outside groups have spent a combined $788,101 in opposing McConnell and another $586,151 in support of his primary opponent Matt Bevin, a businessman.
McConnell has been attacked for being in Congress too long and for opposing the government shutdown aimed at revoking the Affordable Care Act.
2. Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS) - $1.1 million spent against him
Conservative groups have spent $334,808 in opposing Cochran and $780,539 in support of his Tea Party challenger, State Sen. Chris McDaniel. Cochran’s reputation for securing earmarks grated on fiscal conservatives. And the senator's recent admission that he doesn’t “really know much about” the Tea Party didn’t go down well with the far right. Cochran, a veteran of the Appropriations and Agriculture committees, is considered by many to be the most vulnerable to a Tea Party upset.
Cochran supporters have fought back. A Super PAC with ties to him called Mississippi Conservatives has poured $593,036 into opposition spending against McDaniel.
3. Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-NC) - $348,000 spent against him
Jones’ bid for reelection became a lot more competitive after he was hit by a $78,000 ad buy from the Ending Spending Fund, a Super PAC backed by hedge fund multi-millionaire John Ricketts and mega-donor casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. Adelson, who bankrolled former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s 2012 presidential bid, plans to spend a lot more on a Republican candidate in the 2016 presidential sweepstakes.
In total, the fund has spent $197,230 in its efforts to push Jones out of office.
4. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) - $272,000 spent against him
The TeaParty.net Leadership Fund, a PAC, has spent $238,799 opposing Boehner and $33,558 boosting his Tea Party opponent, J.D. Winteregg. TeaParty.net’s organizers were so eager to go up against Boehner that they announced their intention to spend $25,000 before there was even a challenger. Boehner, however, has a lock on his district and is hardly breaking a sweat.
5. Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID) - $244,000 spent against him
Simpson is facing his most competitive race since his 1998 election to Congress. Club for Growth Action, FreedomWorks, and other groups that lean far right have spent $206,634 to defeat Simpson and $36,869 in support of challenger Bryan Smith, a corporate lawyer. Club for Growth’s PAC has pitched in as well, spending $21,000 for Smith.
Simpson has alienated Tea Party groups in part because of his close alliance with Boehner. On the other hand, the National Rifle Association’s PAC has spent $45,516 on his behalf.
6. Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) - $106,000
The Tea Party Express/Our Country Deserves Better PAC dumped $105,857 into supporting state Sen. Owen Hill's primary campaign before he bowed out last month, allowing Gardner to focus on his general election bid to unseat Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO). Gardner's experience in the House marked him as a GOP insider. The Tea Party group's spending occurred before he officially announced his candidacy, but when he announced, the group's chairman attacked him as "the establishment's anointed candidate."
Taylor Budowich, executive director of the Tea Party Express, stressed that the $105,857 went for just one ad that was aired for two weeks on behalf of Hill and was off the air for over a month before Gardner formally jumped into the race.
This article was updated at 1:30 p.m. on April 7, 2014.
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