The Right’s Plan to Beat the Republican Establishment: Act Like the Republican Establishment.

The tea party is growing up, and while its stances aren’t softening, its tactics are changing rapidly.

Senate Republican primary candidate Matt Bevin (L) campaigns in a restaurant in Sligo, Kentucky, on April 23, 2014.
Andrea Drusch
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Andrea Drusch
Dec. 17, 2014, 2:34 p.m.

It’s Polit­ics 101: Whenev­er a Demo­crat or Re­pub­lic­an an­nounces a run for of­fice, the oth­er party pounces with a “rap­id re­sponse” at­tack on their rival’s re­cord. And so when Re­pub­lic­an Johnny Isak­son of Geor­gia an­nounced last month that he would seek a third Sen­ate term in 2016, someone was in­ev­it­ably go­ing to rain on his parade.

But this time, the at­tacks didn’t come from Demo­crats. They came from the right. The new for-profit me­dia com­pany Con­ser­vat­ive Re­view blas­ted an email to its sub­scribers telling them Isak­son’s “Liberty Score” (a newly min­ted meas­ure) was an “F”, and fol­lowed that with a list of “5 reas­ons con­ser­vat­ives will nev­er be on board with Sen. Isak­son.”

Con­ser­vat­ive Re­view‘s rap­id re­sponse is part of big­ger shift with­in the move­ment: A half-dec­ade after the anti-Obama (and anti-Obama­care) re­volu­tion, the re­sur­gent right flank of the Re­pub­lic­an Party is grow­ing up, dis­play­ing a new will­ing­ness, even an eager­ness, to ad­opt the same tac­tics the es­tab­lish­ment has used against them.

For one, they’re at­tack­ing in­cum­bents early and of­ten, even be­fore they have a pre­ferred can­did­ate of their own. It’s what the es­tab­lish­ment did to the right flank dur­ing the 2014 elec­tions. The right­ward-most Re­pub­lic­ans began the cycle with what they be­lieved to be a prize re­cruit in Ken­tucky Sen­ate can­did­ate Matt Bev­in—only to watch him sink quickly un­der early, ag­gress­ive op­pos­i­tion at­tacks from in­com­ing Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell and his deep-pock­eted al­lies. Their Kan­sas can­did­ate, Milton Wolf, met a sim­il­ar fate, as Sen. Pat Roberts’s al­lies fo­cused mil­lions of dol­lars on ads high­light­ing un­sa­vory Face­book posts the ra­di­olo­gist had writ­ten in re­gards to dead bod­ies. This cycle, con­ser­vat­ives hope to re­verse that timeline, mak­ing the in­cum­bents the early op­pos­i­tion tar­gets in­stead.

“Every­one has something you can put in a thirty-second ad, the ques­tion is who con­trols the nar­rat­ive first,” said Con­ser­vat­ive Re­view Seni­or Ed­it­or Daniel Horow­itz, a former polit­ic­al dir­ect­or for the Madis­on Pro­ject. “If you make the first step bring­ing out the [chal­lenger] “¦ it’s al­most tan­tamount to wav­ing a sling­shot without any ar­mor and hav­ing the in­cum­bent blow the guy up with a ba­zooka”¦. You need to start com­ing in with air­strikes against the oth­er guy first.”

Ad­di­tion­ally, they’re work­ing to in­crease co­ordin­a­tion between rival groups. Con­ser­vat­ive op­er­at­ives who have run in the same circles for years hope that the ad­di­tion of a rap­id-re­sponse arm—Con­ser­vat­ive Re­view—along with a bet­ter di­vi­sion of labor between like-minded groups will make them more ef­fi­cient in tak­ing on bet­ter-fun­ded op­pon­ents.

“I’m a big be­liev­er that the move­ment will work best as we all fig­ure out which niche, where we per­form best, what our best ser­vice is,” said Madis­on Pro­ject polit­ic­al dir­ect­or Drew Ry­un. He lauded Horow­itz’s new ven­ture as an in­teg­ral part of that team, filling a role his group simply lacked band­width for in the past.

“I think the abil­ity to drive in­form­a­tion like that home in real time versus these guys’ be­ing able to run and hide be­hind elec­tion year con­ver­sions and be­hind score­cards, I think that is go­ing to be an­oth­er wrinkle that po­ten­tially the es­tab­lish­ment, these in­cum­bents, have not faced yet,” Ry­un said. “The idea of really soften­ing up in­cum­bents well in ad­vance of the elec­tion cycle is something we would spend some time and some re­sources on, wheth­er it’s ra­dio ads in the dis­tricts or states or rob­ocalls, door-to-door work with their ac­tu­al vot­ing re­cords, do­ing some off-sea­son work.”

This time around, the anti-in­cum­bent move­ment is at­tempt­ing to match the es­tab­lish­ment not only in tac­tics, but in dis­cip­line. Es­tab­lish­ment can­did­ates that es­caped ser­i­ous chal­lenges in 2014 did so by run­ning ser­i­ous, smart cam­paigns that en­lis­ted many of the po­ten­tial chal­lengers for help. Among the party’s close calls, like Roberts and Sen. Thad Co­chran of Mis­souri, es­tab­lish­ment back­ers de­ployed their best and bright­est strategists to come to the res­cue.

For con­ser­vat­ives, in­stilling a sim­il­ar dis­cip­line means not only dir­ect­ing can­did­ates to trus­ted cam­paign re­sources, like Cold Spark, but also prun­ing out fac­tions that they think are hold­ing it back. Con­ser­vat­ive Re­view con­siders it­self work­ing part­ners with groups such as the Madis­on Pro­ject, Her­it­age Ac­tion, and the Sen­ate Con­ser­vat­ive Fund. (Madis­on and SCF raise money and field can­did­ates, while Her­it­age Ac­tion fo­cuses on ad­vocacy and the policy-set­ting front.)

But Ex­ec­ut­ive Ed­it­or Gaston Mooney singled out Tea Party Ex­press and oth­ers as groups the co­ali­tion hopes to work around, not with. “Con­ser­vat­ive Re­view seeks to shed light onto self-serving polit­ic­al groups that have weaseled their way in­to the con­ser­vat­ive com­munity,” Mooney said. “Some of these groups are down­right fraud­u­lent “¦ they col­lect donor money but don’t re­turn a dime of it to the can­did­ate.”

(Tea Party Ex­press Ex­ec­ut­ive Dir­ect­or Taylor Budowich con­tested Con­ser­vat­ive Re­view‘s claims, say­ing Fed­er­al Elec­tion Com­mis­sion re­ports in­dic­ate his group has writ­ten $255,000 in checks to can­did­ates. It also put on bus tours and grass­roots ral­lies for can­did­ates like Wolf in Kan­sas and Chris McDaniel in Mis­sis­sippi. “Bus tours and events aren’t a cheap en­deavor and those grass­roots activ­it­ies are key to elect­or­al suc­cess,” Budowich said.)

Wheth­er the anti­es­tab­lish­ment wing can re­peat its suc­cesses from 2010 and 2012—and avoid an­oth­er cycle full of the near-misses it suffered in 2014—re­mains an open ques­tion. The move­ment now has the es­tab­lish­ment’s full at­ten­tion, and Re­pub­lic­an Party lead­ers are mak­ing their own plans to du­plic­ate their 2014 in the elec­tions to come.

Asked wheth­er a more uni­fied con­ser­vat­ive move­ment would yield any changes on the es­tab­lish­ment’s end, GOP con­sult­ant Bri­an Walsh shrugged off the pos­sib­il­ity of a threat. Walsh was pre­vi­ously a spokes­man for the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Sen­at­ori­al Com­mit­tee and has ad­vised nu­mer­ous Re­pub­lic­an in­cum­bents. “There’s no ques­tion these guys all worked to­geth­er last cycle, they did work in close co­ordin­a­tion and they lost,” he said. Walsh sug­ges­ted the 2014 cycle had so­lid­i­fied the GOP’s dom­in­ance over primary chal­lengers through pro­act­ive cam­paign­ing. “If you’re lay­ing the ground­work early on, and put­ting your or­gan­iz­a­tion to­geth­er and rais­ing money, then you’re not go­ing to have a prob­lem in your primary.”

Last cycle, con­ser­vat­ive groups took on (and lost) races against gi­ants like Mc­Con­nell and Roberts, and the com­ing cycle’s tar­gets will be no less in­tim­id­at­ing. They’ve already named Sen. John Mc­Cain as en­emy No. 1, but since they’re no longer wait­ing for chal­lengers to emerge be­fore start­ing at­tacks, any in­cum­bent who doesn’t meet their con­ser­vat­ive cre­den­tials is a po­ten­tial tar­get.

And in 2016, Con­ser­vat­ive Re­view and like-minded groups don’t need to win races to make their pres­ence felt. In their 2014 losses, the groups saw a sil­ver lin­ing: The es­tab­lish­ment can­did­ates who beat their chal­lengers did so in part by co-opt­ing anti­es­tab­lish­ment is­sues and rhet­or­ic.

“We’re win­ning on the is­sues, but the nuts and bolts of knock­ing off any in­cum­bent … it has nev­er got­ten easi­er and it nev­er will, you’re al­ways go­ing to be a pari­ah,” Horow­itz said. “But I be­lieve we won. Did you hear Pat Roberts? I’ve nev­er seen him that feisty in 20 years. He ran on our is­sues. We made Karl Rove drink our own Kool Aid—he had to go and put out an ad against am­nesty.”

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