If you’re looking for a signs of an emerging schism between the establishment and tea party within the GOP, look no further than the mounting crop of primary challengers to Republican Senate incumbents. In 2010 and 2012, tea party activists picked their most vulnerable targets, like Lugar, Hatch and Bennett. Now they’re going after the entire establishment.
— With state senator Chris McDaniel‘s campaign against Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran, half of the 12 Republican senators up for reelection now face threats from the right. A seventh, Texas Sen. John Cornyn, is worried enough about a primary that he voted against the government-funding compromise.
— While most of the upstarts are clear underdogs, McDaniel is the closest to actually winning a Senate seat. The state legislator’s well-orchestrated entrance was designed as much to put pressure on Cochran to retire. The Senate Conservatives Fund and Club for Growth each blasted endorsements out within minutes of his announcement. One conservative operative involved in the race called him “the Jim DeMint of the Mississippi state legislature” and expects him to be more formidable than any of the other conservative Senate challengers.
— McDaniel and his allies read the political tea leaves in Mississippi effectively. Cochran only raised $53,000 in the third quarter, a telltale sign the longtime appropriator is heading to the exits. If Cochran does step down, McDaniel would become an early frontrunner as the conservative candidate, with national fundraising assets behind him. Mississippi, after all, is a deeply Republican state with a very conservative primary electorate.
It’s striking that the Club for Growth, which traditionally focuses on the House, has now endorsed more candidates for the Senate (2) this cycle. The Senate Conservatives Fund is now officially opposing Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, backing his tea party challenger Matt Bevin. With House Republicans already marching in line with the base, outside groups are working to reshape the Senate more to their liking.