Under Attack From the Establishment, Tea-Party Candidacies Fizzling

Unvetted candidates are hurting the reputations of conservative outside groups.

A protester carries an historic flag during a 'tea party' demonstration against taxes in Lafayette Park across from the White House on April 15, 2009 in Washington, DC. Coast-to-coast demonstrations against Obama's big-spending economic stimulus package are promised for the day that is also the deadline for filing federal income tax returns. The protests are named after the 1773 Boston Tea Party in which disgruntled Americans rebelled against British colonial taxes, an iconic moment in the path to US independence.
National Journal
Alex Roarty
Feb. 24, 2014, 4:59 p.m.

Rep. Steve Stock­man’s anti­es­tab­lish­ment quest to topple Sen. John Cornyn of Texas is wind­ing to­ward an abysmal fin­ish: Polls sug­gest that he’ll not only fall short of knock­ing out the in­cum­bent dur­ing next week’s primary, he’ll be lucky to out­per­form a hand­ful of tea-party un­knowns. Stock­man was nev­er em­braced by out­side con­ser­vat­ive groups, but many grass­roots act­iv­ists were ex­pect­ing a more vig­or­ous chal­lenge to an es­tab­lish­ment den­iz­en than what the quirky con­gress­man provided.

Stock­man’s tale isn’t a unique one. The last month has provided nu­mer­ous ex­amples of tea-party fa­vor­ites prov­ing they’re not ready for polit­ic­al prime time. In­deed, of the six Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­ors fa­cing primary op­pos­i­tion this year, only one — Thad Co­chran of Mis­sis­sippi — looks like he’s fa­cing a cred­ible threat.

Take Milton Wolf in Kan­sas. The ra­di­olo­gist’s cam­paign was handed a race-al­ter­ing gift when The New York Times re­por­ted that his op­pon­ent, Sen. Pat Roberts, barely kept his res­id­ency in Kan­sas. But now his ef­fort is fal­ter­ing un­der the weight of rev­el­a­tions that he pub­lished and joked about graph­ic im­ages of his pa­tients. The Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Sen­at­ori­al Com­mit­tee has act­ively pro­moted Wolf’s trav­ails to re­port­ers as eagerly as the group has dished oppo against vul­ner­able Demo­crats.

Or take Matt Bev­in in Ken­tucky, whose per­son­al for­tune was sup­posed to help fuel a well-fun­ded ef­fort to take down Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell. In­stead, he’s de­flect­ing ac­cus­a­tions from his nom­in­al al­lies that he backed the gov­ern­ment’s mult­i­bil­lion-dol­lar Wall Street bail­out dur­ing the height of the fin­an­cial crisis. Mc­Con­nell’s ag­gress­ive cam­paign and out­side al­lies are play­ing a pivotal role in pre­vent­ing Bev­in’s cam­paign from get­ting any trac­tion.

The tri­fecta of dis­ap­point­ing re­turns for con­ser­vat­ives isn’t co­in­cid­ent­al. In pre­vi­ous years, in­sur­gent con­ser­vat­ive can­did­ates like Christine O’Don­nell wer­en’t taken ser­i­ously in the GOP primary, with the prob­lem­at­ic parts of their re­cord hid­den away un­til a gen­er­al elec­tion.

But with in­cum­bents now keenly aware of the danger they face in a primary, those same tea-party-aligned hope­fuls are find­ing them­selves un­der more scru­tiny than ever. And of­ten­times they’re not hold­ing up well.

“In­ev­it­ably, in a statewide race, any is­sues in any can­did­ate’s back­ground would come to the fore­front,” said Bri­an Walsh, a former NR­SC com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ect­or. “And we’re see­ing in­cum­bents who aren’t tak­ing any­thing for gran­ted.”

So far, Stock­man’s cam­paign is the best ex­ample of a tea-party chal­lenger gone wild. His ef­fort has been bizarre, with him dis­ap­pear­ing from the cam­paign trail for weeks without no­ti­fy­ing the me­dia, only to re­veal later that he had been in Rus­sia. He’s made barely any pub­lic ap­pear­ances in Texas, tak­ing refuge in his in­creas­ingly er­rat­ic Twit­ter ac­count in­stead.

Those strange jaunts alone would come close to dis­qual­i­fy­ing him from of­fice. But they’ve been ac­cen­tu­ated by an ag­gress­ive ef­fort from Cornyn to keep the pres­sure on Stock­man and by the sen­at­or’s own at­tempts to re­main close to the GOP base.

Cornyn’s press op­er­a­tions have high­lighted every mis­step in the con­gress­man’s run, while Cornyn him­self has spent the bet­ter part of a year at­tend­ing loc­al Re­pub­lic­an func­tions to build grass­roots sup­port for his can­did­acy. And he has built a sub­stan­tial war chest, rais­ing nearly $7.5 mil­lion in 2013 alone.

“He was al­ways go­ing to treat this as the toughest race he’s run,” said Cornyn cam­paign spokes­man Drew Brandew­ie. “And that was al­ways the at­ti­tude he’s had.”

In­ev­it­ably, es­tab­lish­ment Re­pub­lic­ans say the fail­ure of can­did­ates like Stock­man or Bev­in are the fault of out­side con­ser­vat­ive groups, in par­tic­u­lar the Sen­ate Con­ser­vat­ives Fund. The group once aligned with former Sen. Jim De­Mint — which has en­dorsed Bev­in and Wolf but not Stock­man — has been at war with the NR­SC for much of this cycle over its sup­port of can­did­ates tar­get­ing GOP in­cum­bents.

“The Sen­ate Con­ser­vat­ives Fund has said that the only cri­ter­ia to pos­sibly get their sup­port is that you’re not the in­cum­bent,” Walsh said. “Oth­er than that, they say any­one is free to ap­ply.”

Of­fi­cials at SCF fire back that the NR­SC, in push­ing some of the at­tacks against Wolf and oth­ers, is sig­nal­ing they won’t back those can­did­ates should they cap­ture the nom­in­a­tion any­way.

“That’s a very big shift and it proves that they’re not in­ter­ested in win­ning a ma­jor­ity,” said Matt Hoskins, the SCF’s ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or. “Their goal [is] to pro­tect in­cum­bents and elect more mod­er­ate Re­pub­lic­ans who won’t rock the boat. They’re not in­ter­ested in build­ing a new Sen­ate, they want to pro­tect the old one.”

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