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Is It Time for Conservatives to Ditch the Tea Party? Is It Time for Conservatives to Ditch the Tea Party?

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Is It Time for Conservatives to Ditch the Tea Party?

When your top expenditures weeks before a big primary are on bumper stickers and Chik-fil-A, you might be doing it wrong.

(Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

The losses stacked up Tuesday for anti-establishment Republicans like a pile of discarded yard signs from a losing campaign.

In the House, Idaho Rep. (and John Boehner ally) Mike Simpson won his once-ballyhooed primary in a laugher. In the Senate, the establishment-backed Monica Wehby won easily in Oregon despite opposition from some pro-life groups, and the two Republican candidates in Georgia liked least by activists, businessman David Perdue and Rep. Jack Kingston, grabbed both slots in the state's runoff over a trio of tea-party favorites.

Toughest for some conservatives was Mitch McConnell's waltz to victory in the Kentucky primary, where the Associated Press had to wait only minutes after the polls closed to declare him the winner. At one point last year, some parts of the conservative movement were promising an all-or-nothing brawl with the GOP Senate leader.

The insurgent movement might not be dead, but it's been dealt some ugly blows this primary season.

"The world has changed," said Chris Chocola, president of the group that practically invented taking on GOP incumbents, the Club for Growth. "We need to recognize that, and we do."

Declaring the tea party dead is wrong. As so many like to point out, the movement can credibly claim at least partial victory by forcing mainstream Republicans to adopt their agenda, and candidates like Nebraska's Ben Sasse have been able to win this year thanks in large part to the support of groups normally unaligned with the Republican Party's powers-that-be.

But there's also no doubt that candidates who draw their support from outside the GOP establishment—whatever you want to call them—have fallen short, often woefully so, in nearly every contest so far in 2014. Tuesday represented a low point for their four-year effort, and the coming months offer few obvious opportunities to strike back.

"We used to be lonely actors that could, for lack of better term, sneak up on people," said Chocola. "The power of incumbency and the inevitability of incumbency is not being taken for granted any longer, nor by the establishment."

The Club for Growth spent close to a half-million dollars supporting Simpson's challenger, lawyer Bryan Smith, only to be overwhelmed by a deluge of money from groups like the Chamber of Commerce. All told, such groups spent about $2.4 million on Simpson's behalf, according to the Sunlight Foundation.

The establishment's big checkbook has been a theme of this year's elections. In this month's Senate Republican primary in North Carolina, sizable investments from the Karl Rove-backed American Crossroads and the chamber practically dragged state House Speaker Thom Tillis across the finish line to avoid a runoff against another GOP candidate. His underfunded foes couldn't keep up.

Groups like Crossroads and the Chamber are playing aggressively in GOP primaries in 2014, but they're doing so in a careful and calibrated way to avoid antagonizing the very primary voters they're trying to win over. It's part of their own evolution, after their ineffective efforts during the 2010 and 2012 elections helped spawn the candidacies of general-election killers like Christine O'Donnell and Todd Akin.

Some of their conservative foes, however, aren't keeping up. There's no better example than in Kentucky, where groups like FreedomWorks and the Senate Conservatives Fund vowed to back Louisville businessman's Matt Bevin's campaign to the hilt against McConnell. For a while, they did—the Senate Conservatives Fund helped funnel millions of dollars into the race on Bevin's behalf.

But those efforts dried up by April. What spending remained was paltry—and possibly badly allocated. FreedomWorks, for example, spent $34,000 from the beginning of April through the primary on the salaries of four staffers in the state, according to independent expenditure reports filed with the Federal Election Commission. That's not a particularly exorbitant amount of money for salary—many professional consultants make much, much more—but it does represent an overwhelming share of the total spending by FreedomWorks in the weeks leading up to the primary.

Other than salary, some of the group's top expenditures in April and May included $1,149 for bumper stickers and $265 used on Chick-fil-A. Before then, the group had spent tens of thousands of dollars on yard signs, door-hangers, and T-shirts for Bevin—the kind of items most political professionals consider a waste of money.

"The tea party as a brand is dead in general elections. It's on death's door in primaries."

In an interview, FreedomWorks national political director Russ Walker defended his group as a niche organization dedicated to building grassroots support while others spend big on TV. And he questioned how much top staffers and consultants made working for McConnell.

But he also conceded that unlike in previous years, his and other conservatives' anti-incumbent message is being drowned out by the opposition. McConnell has already spent close to $10 million of his own campaign funds this cycle.

"Unfortunately, I think this race, like some other races this cycle, tell a different story," Walker said. "And the story it tells is the establishment is willing to spend what is necessary to defend their people."

Privately, spending patterns like FreedomWorks's raises the hackles of some conservative leaders. (Chocola declined to comment specifically on the group's Kentucky spending but said, "Time will weed out the good actors from the bad actors.") But to some conservative strategists, the problems go beyond tactical incompetence. The attitudes of Republican primary voters have shifted since 2010 and 2012, and conservative challengers have had to change with them.

One conservative strategist, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, said years of bad press for tea-party candidates has eroded the group's appeal to just about everybody—Republicans included. In polls this strategist has seen, with the exception of the most conservative states, a majority of GOP voters no longer identify themselves as members of the tea party. Yet many conservative challengers still insist on labeling themselves part of the tea party.

"The tea party as a brand is dead in general elections," the operative said. "It's on death's door in primaries."

What's important, conservatives say, is even if those voters don't identify with the tea party, they still hold the same values. Which means they're still open to supporting challenges against establishment-friendly, moderate Republicans.

What has to happen then is those candidates essentially moving past the tea-party frame. It's not a revolutionary idea, some strategists argue, because it's not as if challengers to GOP primaries didn't exist before the tea-party movement invented itself in 2009.

"The labels get stale," said Chocola. "What doesn't get stale is candidate's ability to articulate fiscal-conservative principles."

Chocola and other conservatives still have one obvious chance to reverse the narrative: The June 3 Republican primary in Mississippi, where insurgent state Sen. Chris McDaniel is taking on U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran.

Without that one, 2014 could be a lost year for their cause.

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