When it comes to tea party groups, most media attention has focused on races where they're challenging Republican incumbents like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. But more consequentially, they'll soon have to decide whether to back steadfast conservatives in battleground races with electability issues.
-- The three races to watch are in North Carolina, Georgia and Iowa. Both the establishment (NRSC, Crossroads) and conservative groups (Club for Growth, SCF) have largely stayed on the sidelines as large fields battle in all three. But it's an uncomfortable détente. Privately, outside conservative groups are enthusiastic about physician Greg Brannon (R-NC), who won Sens. Rand Paul's and Mike Lee's endorsements but also faces potentially damaging ethics scrutiny. Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA) has a near-perfect scorecard from the Club for Growth — plus a history of controversial comments. In Iowa, talk show host Sam Clovis (R) is another outspoken conservative to watch.
-- All three of these primaries in May and June are likely to prompt field-narrowing runoffs or conventions. That's when outside groups will make tough decisions. If, say, Broun makes into a runoff against appropriator Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA), will conservatives jump on Broun's bandwagon? As part of its efforts to back electable Republicans, would Crossroads back establishment favorite Thom Tillis (R) in North Carolina?
-- For conservative groups, it's a question of whether they want to salvage any sort of relationship with the establishment as the Senate looks increasingly in play. In the case of the Club for Growth, which made its name by targeting moderate Republicans, it's had some productive alliances with the establishment lately, backing Tom Cotton (R-AR) and Dan Sullivan (R-AK). Both those candidates, in critical races, are also establishment favorites. But SCF and FreedomWorks, aggressively backing McConnell's challenger, have been much less concerned about those niceties.
The tea party's future fortunes could well be written in the next several months. If they endorse favored conservative candidates and get them nominated, it would be a renewed measure of their clout. But if those nominees lose winnable races, expect an even more heated battle between the establishment and the Right.
-- Josh Kraushaar