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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