Republican Senate challengers in a trio of Southern states are hoping to ride an anti-Washington wave into Congress. They've wasted no time targeting incumbents on the government shutdown and the deal that averted a debt default, but the strategy has provided mixed results in what are already uphill primary fights.
Tennessee state Rep. Joe Carr used his first ad to target the vote by Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., in support of the fiscal deal, and he contends that Alexander has "lost touch" with the folks back home. But the biggest boost for Carr could come in fundraising — a needed lift after raising $52,000 in the last quarter. "We've already raised more money in the first two or three weeks in October than we have in the entire third quarter," he said.
In Kentucky, the fiscal fight has also increased donations and the number of volunteers for businessman Matt Bevin's campaign, a spokesperson said, adding that the campaign expects the fourth-quarter haul to top the approximately $220,000 brought in between July and September. Bevin recently won the backing of the Senate Conservatives Fund, which blasted Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's "liberal record" — even though National Journal ranked McConnell as the 15th-most-conservative senator based on his 2012 votes.
But Republican strategists cast doubt on how effectively the fiscal fight could be made into a rallying point for tea-party challengers. Ted Jackson, a consultant from Kentucky, said voters can distinguish between opposing the Affordable Care Act and recognizing that a deal that included changes to the ACA wasn't a realistic option. He also questioned Bevin's lack of a built-in base and his low name recognition.
"[There is] just not enough of those voters to vote Mitch out," Jackson said, referring to tea-party voters. "There's not 50 people in Kentucky that could pick Matt Bevin out of a lineup."
Tennessee strategist Tom Ingram said that "by the end of shutdown debacle it was pretty clear to everybody that Lamar Alexander dislikes the Affordable Care Act as much as everybody else, but that wasn't the issue."
In South Carolina, the fiscal fight hasn't resulted in any quantifiable changes in support so far for businessman Richard Cash or state Sen. Lee Bright, who are hoping to challenge Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham. Cash and Bright stressed that Graham's support for the stopgap spending bill added to their narrative that he votes with Democrats and against voters in the state.
They, along with businesswoman Nancy Mace, are hoping to block Graham from getting more than 50 percent of the primary vote, thereby forcing him into a runoff. "I don't see that happening," said Ruth Sherlock, a Republican consultant in South Carolina. So far, all three challengers have a serious problem: weak fundraising.
Carr said he isn't concerned about the fundraising gap — Alexander brought in more than 10 times what he did during the third quarter. Cash also said that primary opponents just need to raise enough "to get their message out," pushing back on the notion that he must come close to matching Graham.
But J. Warren Tompkins, a longtime Republican strategist in South Carolina, said that "unless there is a significant shift in their fundraising abilities, they are going to have a difficult time."
And with the fourth quarter being a difficult time to raise money because of the holidays, it might not be clear how much financial traction these candidates are gaining until first-quarter reports are filed in April.