The decision by conservative Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, not to challenge Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, for his Senate seat was a major blow to tea party activists, who viewed the state as an ideal place to plant their flag for 2012. Giving one of the longest-serving senators a real scare would have sent a message to establishment Republicans: compromise at your own risk.
Instead, Chaffetz’s decision to stay in the House is just the latest political obstacle that the movement has faced as it tries to shape the Congress to its liking.
Tea party activists threatened to challenge one of the most moderate Republicans, Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, but no one credible has emerged so far. They’ve landed a Republican candidate against Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., but conservative groups are still skeptical about whether he has what it takes to win. One outspoken tea partier’s challenge to Virginia Senate candidate George Allen (R) has fizzled.
For conservative activists, Chaffetz’s decision illuminates a political map shaping up to be far less inviting in 2012 than 2010, when they won an array of high-profile Republican primary battles – and elected outspoken conservatives like Rand Paul in Kentucky and Mike Lee in Utah to the Senate, in addition to dozens of like-minded members in the House.
The biggest battles for movement conservatives are looking decidedly tougher. Both FreedomWorks and Club for Growth remain committed to defeating Hatch in 2012, but are having trouble identifying a challenger who matches Chaffetz’s tea party credentials with a political background to boot. Chaffetz would have united conservative opposition against Hatch and, as a congressman, would have had a much stronger fundraising base than whoever takes his place.
“Bottom line, this was never about Jason," said FreedomWorks national political director Russ Walker. "It was always about Orrin Hatch. While Jason would have been a very good candidate... there's a lot of other people who have approached us. This race might become a little more dynamic now that he's out of it."
State Sen. Dan Liljenquist has received the most focus after Chaffetz, but he hasn't yet committed to running. Liljenquist has won support from conservatives for reforming the state pension system and tackling Medicaid. But some conservatives see parts of his record as problematic.
"I like Dan. I don't want to be throwing darts at him.... [Immigration] is just not a passionate issue for him, and he hasn't ever really been on that side, and so that is something that is concerning to a lot of the conservative people here in Utah," said Utah tea party organizer David Kirkham.
The dilemma between finding a candidate who’s ideologically pure and also has the ability to win statewide elections is proving to be harder than expected. Immediately after the 2010 midterms that saw tea party-aligned Paul LePage win the Maine governor's race, tea party activists identified Snowe as a promising target. Throughout her career, she’d always been inclined to compromise, a glaring red flag. Polls showed her support lagging among Republicans, and she seemed ripe for defeat in a primary where only the most committed Republicans show up.
But so far, the threat hasn’t materialized. Two little-known tea party activists have announced campaigns, but haven’t raised enough money or built an organization that poses a threat to her nomination. LePage has gotten behind Snowe’s reelection, giving her critical credibility. And she’s looking to be in solid position to win.
“I just don’t see nearly the amount of rancor during this primary season that we did last year,” said Chris LaCivita, a Virginia-based Republican consultant.
LaCivita has reason to feel that the anti-establishment forces have peaked. A former adviser to George Allen, he watched Jamie Radtke, the chairwoman of the Federation of Virginia Tea Party Patriots, enter the race. Her insurgent candidacy drew plenty of media attention and excitement from Democrats expecting her to play the role of Nevada’s Sharron Angle or Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell – who defeated establishment Republicans in the 2010 midterms but lost to Democrats in the general election.
But unlike Angle or O’Donnell, Radtke has struggled to raise much money and win attention from the conservative media, and is mired in single-digits in the polls. Allen has hardly addressed her on the campaign trail, and has already trained his focus on Democrat Tim Kaine.
Outside Utah, the tea party’s best opportunity to have an impact unseating an establishment Republican was in Indiana, where Lugar drew activists’ ire for working with President Obama. He fueled anger earlier this year when he sounded dismissive of attempts to curb earmarks.
With the support of grassroots conservatives in Indiana, state Treasurer Richard Mourdock (R) entered the race to much fanfare in February. But while polls show Lugar remains vulnerable, Mourdock has run a lackluster campaign and hasn’t raised the money or gotten the support from national conservative groups that one would expect from a statewide officeholder.
The fiscally conservative Club for Growth, whose profile has risen after helping oust sitting Republican members of Congress, hasn’t endorsed Mourdock. The group met with him soon after he announced his campaign, and were disappointed enough with his command of their core issues that they decided not to back him, according to several sources familiar with the meeting. He made a better impression during his second visit with the group, but the perception stuck.
“There have to be things in place, and they’re not yet,” Club for Growth President Chris Chocola said in an interview earlier this month. “His fundraising needs to improve -- he hasn’t shown he’s been able to effectively fundraise yet. But he’s making progress.”
Conservatives can point to some promising Senate recruits, like state Solicitor General Ted Cruz in Texas and state Treasurer Josh Mandel in Ohio. The movement could also still wield huge influence in House races, especially with many new open seats being created thanks to redistricting process.
“I think that, at least within the tea party, we feel have lots of opportunities for not just pickups, but exchange -- getting someone who is going to be more fiscally conservative than the current senator,” said Walker of FreedomWorks.
Along with the Utah and Indiana Senate races, there are two other things to watch to test the potency of the movement. In Wisconsin, the Club for Growth is mounting a full-fledged attack against the not-yet-declared Senate campaign of former GOP Gov. Tommy Thompson, comparing him to Obama. Former Senate candidate Mark Neumann is seriously considering a run to Thompson’s right, and if he did, would likely receive the group’s backing.
Just as important are the dozens of emerging House races where tea party activists made the greatest impact, helping elect dozens of like-minded outsiders who have made cutting spending a major priority with the new Republican majority. But many were disappointed in the debt ceiling compromise backed by Republican House leadership, and are now turning on their former beneficiaries.
Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn., is already receiving a primary threat, even though local tea party groups enthusiastically backed her bid just two years ago.
“People are really a bit upset that they saw members of Congress they worked so hard to elect so easily fall in line with GOP leadership on this,” said Republican consultant Keith Appell.