The Tea Party’s Over

Outside conservative groups are experiencing the limits of their influence.

Tea Party member John Wallmeyer watches results from the Virginia Governor's race at an election night gathering of supporters of Republican candidate Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinell November 5, 2013 in Richmond, Virginia. Cuccinelli, running against Terry McAuliffe, became the first state attorney general to file a lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act when it was passed in 2010.
National Journal
Josh Kraushaar
March 18, 2014, 3:44 p.m.

Freedom­Works is­sued an un­usu­al round of en­dorse­ments this week. The con­ser­vat­ive group, which won pub­li­city for back­ing in­tra­party chal­lenges to Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell and Rep. Mike Simpson, de­cided to play it safe this time. It en­dorsed three sen­at­ors and nine con­gress­men, none of whom face any ser­i­ous com­pet­i­tion — Re­pub­lic­an or Demo­crat­ic. It stayed out of the con­tested Ok­lahoma primary for Sen. Tom Coburn’s seat, but en­dorsed Re­pub­lic­an James In­hofe, who doesn’t face any GOP op­pos­i­tion. In South Car­o­lina, Freedom­Works is back­ing Sen. Tim Scott, who’s a lock for reelec­tion, but it isn’t do­ing any­thing against vul­ner­able Sen. Lind­sey Gra­ham, who’s also on the bal­lot this year.

All told, it’s a sign that the group has stopped stick­ing its neck out for long-shot con­ser­vat­ive in­sur­gents and is con­tent to put some easy vic­tor­ies on the board.

It’s a far cry from the early am­bi­tions of the ag­gress­ively anti­es­tab­lish­ment group, which entered the cycle boldly chal­len­ging sit­ting sen­at­ors, in­clud­ing the cham­ber’s most power­ful Re­pub­lic­an. Now they’re con­tent to fo­cus on their sup­port for mem­bers of Con­gress who are as close to reelec­tion locks as they come. In­deed, Freedom­Works’ latest slam-dunk en­dorse­ments are em­blem­at­ic of scaled-back am­bi­tions from lead­ing out­side con­ser­vat­ive groups.

Of the 10 “RI­NOs” in the House flagged for de­feat by the Club for Growth last year, only one faces a primary op­pon­ent. With two of their lead­ing Sen­ate chal­lengers’ cam­paigns fizz­ling, the Sen­ate Con­ser­vat­ives Fund has now de­cided to back con­ser­vat­ives in House primar­ies. And after rais­ing only $766,000 in 2013 — less than one-third of their 2011 fun­drais­ing — Freedom­Works is now back­ing Re­pub­lic­ans who are so safe that they don’t need any out­side help. Con­ser­vat­ive groups are even dis­agree­ing on which races to tar­get. 

2014 is shap­ing up as the year the Re­pub­lic­an es­tab­lish­ment is find­ing its foot­ing. Of the 12 Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­ors on the bal­lot, six face primary com­pet­i­tion, but only one looks ser­i­ously threatened: Sen. Thad Co­chran of Mis­sis­sippi. More sig­ni­fic­antly, only two House Re­pub­lic­ans are fa­cing cred­ible com­pet­i­tion from tea-party con­ser­vat­ives: Simpson and Rep. Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania — few­er than the num­ber of con­ser­vat­ive House Re­pub­lic­ans fa­cing com­pet­i­tion from the es­tab­lish­ment wing (Reps. Justin Amash, Wal­ter Jones, and Kerry Bentivolio). With fil­ing dead­lines already passed in 23 states, it’s hard to see that dy­nam­ic chan­ging.

Even the Club for Growth, one of the first out­side groups to tar­get Re­pub­lic­an mem­bers of Con­gress, has been not­ably dis­cip­lined this year. Last Feb­ru­ary, the Club en­cour­aged can­did­ates to run against 10 squishy House Re­pub­lic­ans, launch­ing a Primary­My­Con­gress­ site fea­tur­ing the so-called RI­NOs. Only one qual­i­fied chal­lenger emerged. Their PAC is tar­get­ing just one Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­or (Co­chran, fa­cing state Sen. Chris McDaniel) and one Re­pub­lic­an con­gress­man (Simpson). Mean­while, they’ve joined forces with the party es­tab­lish­ment in back­ing Sen­ate can­did­ates Rep. Tom Cot­ton of Arkan­sas and Dan Sul­li­van of Alaska. The en­dorse­ment of Sul­li­van is sig­ni­fic­ant, since they backed Joe Miller’s los­ing gen­er­al-elec­tion cam­paign against Sen. Lisa Murkowski in 2010. Miller’s run­ning again, but this time they’re op­pos­ing him in the primary.

Giv­en the mood of the Re­pub­lic­an elect­or­ate, it’s strik­ing to see the dis­con­nect between the num­ber of con­ser­vat­ive Sen­ate primary chal­lenges and the low num­ber of con­ser­vat­ives run­ning against House in­cum­bents. With 211 Re­pub­lic­ans run­ning for reelec­tion, only two are cred­ibly be­ing chal­lenged from the right — less than 1 per­cent. That sug­gests the hun­ger for throw­ing out Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­ors is as much a product of out­side in­ter­ven­tion as a re­flec­tion of genu­ine grass­roots op­pos­i­tion.

“There are a lot of Ted Cruz im­it­at­ors that be­lieve all you need to do is make the race na­tion­al and raise a bunch of money on­line and get na­tion­al groups to en­dorse you and everything will take care of it­self,” said one con­ser­vat­ive strategist, lament­ing the qual­ity of pro­spect­ive chal­lengers. Many na­tion­al groups, like­wise, seem to be over­es­tim­at­ing their own abil­ity to re­shape a race with a mere en­dorse­ment.

As my At­lantic col­league Molly Ball writes in the latest is­sue of Demo­cracy, the tea party “is now more prop­erly re­garded as one fac­tion among many in the Re­pub­lic­an co­ali­tion — and a poorly or­gan­ized, ar­riv­iste fac­tion at that.” She noted the fun­drais­ing struggles among most of the lead­ing Sen­ate tea-party chal­lengers — in marked con­trast to the quick mil­lions raised by pre­vi­ous fa­vor­ites, like Nevada’s Shar­ron Angle and Delaware’s Christine O’Don­nell in 2010.

That doesn’t mean the in­flu­ence of the con­ser­vat­ive grass roots has petered out. If any­thing, it demon­strates that con­ser­vat­ives have already re­shaped the House to their lik­ing in re­cent elec­tions. This year’s Sen­ate class of Re­pub­lic­ans, who won their last elec­tion be­fore the emer­gence of the tea party, is merely a lag­ging in­dic­at­or. Out­side groups are still poised to play a sig­ni­fic­ant role in open primar­ies, where it’s easi­er to have an im­pact than against en­trenched in­cum­bents.

While the na­tion­al fo­cus has been on the tar­geted Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­ors, it’s crowded primar­ies in Geor­gia, North Car­o­lina, and Iowa that con­cern Re­pub­lic­an strategists the most.

Re­pub­lic­ans fear that weak, too-con­ser­vat­ive can­did­ates in these races could cost them valu­able seats — with con­trol of the Sen­ate at stake. With the ex­cep­tion of Freedom­Works’ back­ing of phys­i­cian Greg Bran­non in North Car­o­lina, most con­ser­vat­ive groups have re­mained on the side­lines in these cru­cial con­tests. But that could change if the Geor­gia and North Car­o­lina races head in­to run­offs, or if the Iowa nom­in­at­ing fight heads to a con­ven­tion (if no one wins 35 per­cent or more of the vote in a primary). For now there’s an un­com­fort­able GOP détente — with neither side tip­ping the scales yet.

If out­side con­ser­vat­ive groups en­dorse like-minded can­did­ates like Rep. Paul Broun of Geor­gia, Iowa talk-show host Sam Clo­vis, and Bran­non in these primar­ies, ex­pect a heated ideo­lo­gic­al battle to break out over the fu­ture of the party. But if they pull their punches, it’s a sign that even tea-party sym­path­izers re­cog­nize their in­flu­ence has peaked.

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