Chris McDaniel sits atop a wave of conservative Republicans challenging sitting U.S senators from their own party, wielding a tea-party trifecta of endorsements from the Club for Growth, Senate Conservatives Fund, and FreedomWorks.
Yet McDaniel is unlikely to receive support from any of his tea-party idols in the Senate who, in part, owe their own elections to those same groups.
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida won't take sides in GOP incumbent primaries because of his own experience of running against the establishment's pick. Neither will Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, who rode tea-party support to take down a three-term incumbent. Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas are also unlikely to back any of the conservatives taking on Republican senators; in fact, Paul is committing heresy in the eyes of tea-party hard-liners by endorsing two Washington insiders, Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell and Wyoming Sen. Michael Enzi.
This show of decorum from senators who instigated the unpopular government shutdown is striking at a time of mounting friction between the establishment and tea-party wings of the Republican Party. So what's behind it? The upshot of the tea-party caucus's largely staying on the sidelines — and, in Paul's case, endorsing two of his colleagues — is that of all the protocols the conservative insurgency has trashed on Capitol Hill, a member endorsing a colleague's opponent remains strictly taboo.
"It's a club, and once they are part of the club and learn the secret handshake, they all look out for each other," said Matt Hoskins, a former Capitol Hill staffer who serves as executive director of the Senate Conservatives Fund.
He added that the group doesn't necessarily expect allies in the Senate to get behind its lineup of candidates challenging McConnell (Matt Bevin), Thad Cochran of Mississippi (McDaniel), and Pat Roberts of Kansas (Milton Wolf). "But these senators could come under increasing pressure to support the grassroots as the 2014 primaries heat up," Hoskins said. "The establishment has declared war on conservatives, and grassroots candidates will need all the help they can get. It's possible that things could get to a point where senators feel compelled to set friendships aside and do what's best for the country in these races."
In the latest sign of the growing tension within the GOP, Rep. Peter King said this week he's launching a new political action committee to keep tea-party senators like Cruz and Paul at bay. The Tea Party Express roared back, calling King, "a useful idiot for the country-club Republicans who believe you can create a Republican majority in America by excluding much of the conservative movement." McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner have also been trading barbs with tea-party groups.
Despite such animosity among fellow Republicans, the party's senators remain collegial with each other, at least in public. In one of the only instances of an incumbent endorsing a colleague's rival, former Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina threw his support to conservative firebrand Pat Toomey over then-Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania in their 2010 race. Asthe founder of the Senate Conservatives Fund, DeMint also helped Rubio, Paul, and Cruz topple establishment candidates and emerge as rising stars.
Now, Toomey and Paul are touting the reelection of McConnell, the powerful Senate minority leader. Rubio headlined a Kentucky fundraiser for McConnell before his primary rival jumped in, while Lee cohosted a fundraiser for the GOP leader in his home state. Staffers insist the fundraising doesn't amount to official endorsements. Their hesitation makes Paul's decision to unequivocally back McConnell and Enzi all the more striking, especially considering his anti-establishment heritage. His father, former Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, is viewed as a godfather of the tea-party movement and wouldn't even endorse the Republican nominees for president in the past two elections.
In Mississippi, gearing up for a bid against a 35-year incumbent, McDaniel said he would "absolutely welcome" endorsements from tea-party senators such as Paul. "I understand it could be a problem for them to get involved, but we're fighting for the future," said the Mississippi state senator.
An endorsement from the tea-party caucus is also on the wish list of South Carolina Republican Lee Bright, who is taking on Sen. Lindsey Graham. "I'm philosophically matched with them, and from a national fundraising perspective their endorsement would make a big difference," he said.
One of Paul's top advisers and a former chief of staff, Doug Stafford, called backing a challenger over a colleague "a difficult thing to do." Asked if Paul was risking his tea-party credentials by backing two incumbents, Stafford pointed to his support for fellow doctor Greg Bannon, who is running for the Senate from North Carolina against a more established state Republican, House Speaker Thom Tillis. "A lot of people are going to line up on the other side of the race," Stafford said.
Paul's endorsements reflect a balancing act that could lead him to the 2016 presidential nomination: nurturing the tea-party faithful while building some bridges to the more pragmatic wing of the party. Rubio, who spearheaded passage of bipartisan immigration reform legislation earlier this year, appears to have made a similar political calculation. But staying out of primaries is also personal for Rubio, whose Reclaim America leadership PAC is one of the most successful in Washington. The Florida Republican wasn't always on top; at the outset of his 2010 Senate race, he raised $340,000 while then-Gov. Charlie Crist raked in $4.3 million.
"The majority of Washington-based groups endorsed his opponent, Charlie Crist, in his primary because they didn't think Marco could win," said Rubio adviser Terry Sullivan. "He doesn't want to make the same mistake they made."
So instead of meddling in a primary that could cost him politically with one wing of the party or the other, Rubio is banking on a Republican Senate candidate who has received nearly universal support from his party: Rep. Tom Cotton of Arkansas. The $200,000 Reclaim America recently lavished on a pro-Cotton television ad appears to be the biggest expenditure by a Republican leadership PAC so far in this election cycle. The PAC also spent about $140,000 earlier this year on a spot defending New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte's opposition to gun-control measures.
Of the potential Republican presidential contenders on Capitol Hill, Cruz seems the least concerned with making friends. He has even refused to endorse the reelection campaign of fellow Texan John Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate. "It is likely that I am going to stay out of incumbent primaries across the country, either supporting incumbents or opposing incumbents," he said months ago during a trip to New Hampshire.
Lee, who has ruled out a presidential bid, believes that senators should stay out of primaries. Lee defeated former U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett at a GOP convention.
"He feels like primaries are opportunities for Republicans to have a good policy debate without Senate incumbents weighing in," said Lee spokesman Brian Phillips. "It's a more comfortable place for him; that way, there's no feeling of incumbent protection or of challenger promotion."