Is It Time for Conservatives to Ditch the Tea Party?

When your top expenditures weeks before a big primary are on bumper stickers and Chik-fil-A, you might be doing it wrong.

A crowd gathers at the World War Two Memorial to support a rally centered around reopening national memorials closed by the government shutdown, supported by military veterans, Tea Party activists and Republicans, on October 13, 2013 in Washington, DC. The rally was inspired by a desire to re-open national memorials, including the World War Two Memorial in Washington DC, though the rally also focused on the government shutdown and frustrations against President Obama.
National Journal
Alex Roarty
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Alex Roarty
May 21, 2014, 3:06 a.m.

The losses stacked up Tues­day for anti-es­tab­lish­ment Re­pub­lic­ans like a pile of dis­carded yard signs from a los­ing cam­paign.

In the House, Idaho Rep. (and John Boehner ally) Mike Simpson won his once-bal­ly­hooed primary in a laugh­er. In the Sen­ate, the es­tab­lish­ment-backed Mon­ica We­hby won eas­ily in Ore­gon des­pite op­pos­i­tion from some pro-life groups, and the two Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates in Geor­gia liked least by act­iv­ists, busi­ness­man Dav­id Per­due and Rep. Jack King­ston, grabbed both slots in the state’s run­off over a trio of tea-party fa­vor­ites.

Toughest for some con­ser­vat­ives was Mitch Mc­Con­nell’s waltz to vic­tory in the Ken­tucky primary, where the As­so­ci­ated Press had to wait only minutes after the polls closed to de­clare him the win­ner. At one point last year, some parts of the con­ser­vat­ive move­ment were prom­ising an all-or-noth­ing brawl with the GOP Sen­ate lead­er.

The in­sur­gent move­ment might not be dead, but it’s been dealt some ugly blows this primary sea­son.

“The world has changed,” said Chris Chocola, pres­id­ent of the group that prac­tic­ally in­ven­ted tak­ing on GOP in­cum­bents, the Club for Growth. “We need to re­cog­nize that, and we do.”

De­clar­ing the tea party dead is wrong. As so many like to point out, the move­ment can cred­ibly claim at least par­tial vic­tory by for­cing main­stream Re­pub­lic­ans to ad­opt their agenda, and can­did­ates like Neb­raska’s Ben Sas­se have been able to win this year thanks in large part to the sup­port of groups nor­mally un­aligned with the Re­pub­lic­an Party’s powers-that-be.

But there’s also no doubt that can­did­ates who draw their sup­port from out­side the GOP es­tab­lish­ment — whatever you want to call them — have fallen short, of­ten woe­fully so, in nearly every con­test so far in 2014. Tues­day rep­res­en­ted a low point for their four-year ef­fort, and the com­ing months of­fer few ob­vi­ous op­por­tun­it­ies to strike back.

“We used to be lonely act­ors that could, for lack of bet­ter term, sneak up on people,” said Chocola. “The power of in­cum­bency and the in­ev­it­ab­il­ity of in­cum­bency is not be­ing taken for gran­ted any longer, nor by the es­tab­lish­ment.”

The Club for Growth spent close to a half-mil­lion dol­lars sup­port­ing Simpson’s chal­lenger, law­yer Bry­an Smith, only to be over­whelmed by a de­luge of money from groups like the Cham­ber of Com­merce. All told, such groups spent about $2.4 mil­lion on Simpson’s be­half, ac­cord­ing to the Sun­light Found­a­tion.

The es­tab­lish­ment’s big check­book has been a theme of this year’s elec­tions. In this month’s Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­an primary in North Car­o­lina, siz­able in­vest­ments from the Karl Rove-backed Amer­ic­an Cross­roads and the cham­ber prac­tic­ally dragged state House Speak­er Thom Tillis across the fin­ish line to avoid a run­off against an­oth­er GOP can­did­ate. His un­der­fun­ded foes couldn’t keep up.

Groups like Cross­roads and the Cham­ber are play­ing ag­gress­ively in GOP primar­ies in 2014, but they’re do­ing so in a care­ful and cal­ib­rated way to avoid ant­ag­on­iz­ing the very primary voters they’re try­ing to win over. It’s part of their own evol­u­tion, after their in­ef­fect­ive ef­forts dur­ing the 2010 and 2012 elec­tions helped spawn the can­did­a­cies of gen­er­al-elec­tion killers like Christine O’Don­nell and Todd Akin.

Some of their con­ser­vat­ive foes, however, aren’t keep­ing up. There’s no bet­ter ex­ample than in Ken­tucky, where groups like Freedom­Works and the Sen­ate Con­ser­vat­ives Fund vowed to back Louis­ville busi­ness­man’s Matt Bev­in’s cam­paign to the hilt against Mc­Con­nell. For a while, they did — the Sen­ate Con­ser­vat­ives Fund helped fun­nel mil­lions of dol­lars in­to the race on Bev­in’s be­half.

But those ef­forts dried up by April. What spend­ing re­mained was paltry — and pos­sibly badly al­loc­ated. Freedom­Works, for ex­ample, spent $34,000 from the be­gin­ning of April through the primary on the salar­ies of four staffers in the state, ac­cord­ing to in­de­pend­ent ex­pendit­ure re­ports filed with the Fed­er­al Elec­tion Com­mis­sion. That’s not a par­tic­u­larly ex­or­bit­ant amount of money for salary — many pro­fes­sion­al con­sult­ants make much, much more — but it does rep­res­ent an over­whelm­ing share of the total spend­ing by Freedom­Works in the weeks lead­ing up to the primary.

Oth­er than salary, some of the group’s top ex­pendit­ures in April and May in­cluded $1,149 for bump­er stick­ers and $265 used on Chick-fil-A. Be­fore then, the group had spent tens of thou­sands of dol­lars on yard signs, door-hangers, and T-shirts for Bev­in — the kind of items most polit­ic­al pro­fes­sion­als con­sider a waste of money.

“The tea party as a brand is dead in gen­er­al elec­tions. It’s on death’s door in primar­ies.”

In an in­ter­view, Freedom­Works na­tion­al polit­ic­al dir­ect­or Russ Walk­er de­fen­ded his group as a niche or­gan­iz­a­tion ded­ic­ated to build­ing grass­roots sup­port while oth­ers spend big on TV. And he ques­tioned how much top staffers and con­sult­ants made work­ing for Mc­Con­nell.

But he also con­ceded that un­like in pre­vi­ous years, his and oth­er con­ser­vat­ives’ anti-in­cum­bent mes­sage is be­ing drowned out by the op­pos­i­tion. Mc­Con­nell has already spent close to $10 mil­lion of his own cam­paign funds this cycle.

“Un­for­tu­nately, I think this race, like some oth­er races this cycle, tell a dif­fer­ent story,” Walk­er said. “And the story it tells is the es­tab­lish­ment is will­ing to spend what is ne­ces­sary to de­fend their people.”

Privately, spend­ing pat­terns like Freedom­Works’s raises the hackles of some con­ser­vat­ive lead­ers. (Chocola de­clined to com­ment spe­cific­ally on the group’s Ken­tucky spend­ing but said, “Time will weed out the good act­ors from the bad act­ors.”) But to some con­ser­vat­ive strategists, the prob­lems go bey­ond tac­tic­al in­com­pet­ence. The at­ti­tudes of Re­pub­lic­an primary voters have shif­ted since 2010 and 2012, and con­ser­vat­ive chal­lengers have had to change with them.

One con­ser­vat­ive strategist, who re­ques­ted an­onym­ity to speak can­didly, said years of bad press for tea-party can­did­ates has eroded the group’s ap­peal to just about every­body — Re­pub­lic­ans in­cluded. In polls this strategist has seen, with the ex­cep­tion of the most con­ser­vat­ive states, a ma­jor­ity of GOP voters no longer identi­fy them­selves as mem­bers of the tea party. Yet many con­ser­vat­ive chal­lengers still in­sist on la­beling them­selves part of the tea party.

“The tea party as a brand is dead in gen­er­al elec­tions,” the op­er­at­ive said. “It’s on death’s door in primar­ies.”

What’s im­port­ant, con­ser­vat­ives say, is even if those voters don’t identi­fy with the tea party, they still hold the same val­ues. Which means they’re still open to sup­port­ing chal­lenges against es­tab­lish­ment-friendly, mod­er­ate Re­pub­lic­ans.

What has to hap­pen then is those can­did­ates es­sen­tially mov­ing past the tea-party frame. It’s not a re­volu­tion­ary idea, some strategists ar­gue, be­cause it’s not as if chal­lengers to GOP primar­ies didn’t ex­ist be­fore the tea-party move­ment in­ven­ted it­self in 2009.

“The la­bels get stale,” said Chocola. “What doesn’t get stale is can­did­ate’s abil­ity to ar­tic­u­late fisc­al-con­ser­vat­ive prin­ciples.”

Chocola and oth­er con­ser­vat­ives still have one ob­vi­ous chance to re­verse the nar­rat­ive: The June 3 Re­pub­lic­an primary in Mis­sis­sippi, where in­sur­gent state Sen. Chris McDaniel is tak­ing on U.S. Sen. Thad Co­chran.

Without that one, 2014 could be a lost year for their cause.

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