Tea-Party Candidates Shunned by Senate Idols

Conservatives challenging sitting senators would like some support from tea-party favorites Ted Cruz and Rand Paul. They shouldn’t hold their breath.

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) (L) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) wait to speak at the 'Exempt America from Obamacare' rally, on Capitol Hill, September 10, 2013 in Washington, DC. Some conservative lawmakers are making a push to try to defund the health care law as part of the debates over the budget and funding the federal government. 
National Journal
Dec. 19, 2013, midnight

Chris McDaniel sits atop a wave of con­ser­vat­ive Re­pub­lic­ans chal­len­ging sit­ting U.S sen­at­ors from their own party, wield­ing a tea-party tri­fecta of en­dorse­ments from the Club for Growth, Sen­ate Con­ser­vat­ives Fund, and Freedom­Works.

Yet McDaniel is un­likely to re­ceive sup­port from any of his tea-party idols in the Sen­ate who, in part, owe their own elec­tions to those same groups.

Sen. Marco Ru­bio of Flor­ida won’t take sides in GOP in­cum­bent primar­ies be­cause of his own ex­per­i­ence of run­ning against the es­tab­lish­ment’s pick. Neither will Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, who rode tea-party sup­port to take down a three-term in­cum­bent. Sens. Rand Paul of Ken­tucky and Ted Cruz of Texas are also un­likely to back any of the con­ser­vat­ives tak­ing on Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­ors; in fact, Paul is com­mit­ting heresy in the eyes of tea-party hard-liners by en­dors­ing two Wash­ing­ton in­siders, Ken­tucky Sen. Mitch Mc­Con­nell and Wyom­ing Sen. Mi­chael En­zi.

This show of de­cor­um from sen­at­ors who in­stig­ated the un­pop­u­lar gov­ern­ment shut­down is strik­ing at a time of mount­ing fric­tion between the es­tab­lish­ment and tea-party wings of the Re­pub­lic­an Party. So what’s be­hind it? The up­shot of the tea-party caucus’s largely stay­ing on the side­lines — and, in Paul’s case, en­dors­ing two of his col­leagues — is that of all the pro­to­cols the con­ser­vat­ive in­sur­gency has trashed on Cap­it­ol Hill, a mem­ber en­dors­ing a col­league’s op­pon­ent re­mains strictly ta­boo.

“It’s a club, and once they are part of the club and learn the secret hand­shake, they all look out for each oth­er,” said Matt Hoskins, a former Cap­it­ol Hill staffer who serves as ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Sen­ate Con­ser­vat­ives Fund.

He ad­ded that the group doesn’t ne­ces­sar­ily ex­pect al­lies in the Sen­ate to get be­hind its lineup of can­did­ates chal­len­ging Mc­Con­nell (Matt Bev­in), Thad Co­chran of Mis­sis­sippi (McDaniel), and Pat Roberts of Kan­sas (Milton Wolf). “But these sen­at­ors could come un­der in­creas­ing pres­sure to sup­port the grass­roots as the 2014 primar­ies heat up,” Hoskins said. “The es­tab­lish­ment has de­clared war on con­ser­vat­ives, and grass­roots can­did­ates will need all the help they can get. It’s pos­sible that things could get to a point where sen­at­ors feel com­pelled to set friend­ships aside and do what’s best for the coun­try in these races.”

In the latest sign of the grow­ing ten­sion with­in the GOP, Rep. Peter King said this week he’s launch­ing a new polit­ic­al ac­tion com­mit­tee to keep tea-party sen­at­ors like Cruz and Paul at bay. The Tea Party Ex­press roared back, call­ing King, “a use­ful idi­ot for the coun­try-club Re­pub­lic­ans who be­lieve you can cre­ate a Re­pub­lic­an ma­jor­ity in Amer­ica by ex­clud­ing much of the con­ser­vat­ive move­ment.” Mc­Con­nell and House Speak­er John Boehner have also been trad­ing barbs with tea-party groups.

Des­pite such an­im­os­ity among fel­low Re­pub­lic­ans, the party’s sen­at­ors re­main col­legi­al with each oth­er, at least in pub­lic. In one of the only in­stances of an in­cum­bent en­dors­ing a col­league’s rival, former Sen. Jim De­Mint of South Car­o­lina threw his sup­port to con­ser­vat­ive firebrand Pat Toomey over then-Sen. Ar­len Specter of Pennsylvania in their 2010 race. Asthe founder of the Sen­ate Con­ser­vat­ives Fund, De­Mint also helped Ru­bio, Paul, and Cruz topple es­tab­lish­ment can­did­ates and emerge as rising stars.

Now, Toomey and Paul are tout­ing the reelec­tion of Mc­Con­nell, the power­ful Sen­ate minor­ity lead­er. Ru­bio head­lined a Ken­tucky fun­draiser for Mc­Con­nell be­fore his primary rival jumped in, while Lee co­hos­ted a fun­draiser for the GOP lead­er in his home state. Staffers in­sist the fun­drais­ing doesn’t amount to of­fi­cial en­dorse­ments. Their hes­it­a­tion makes Paul’s de­cision to un­equi­voc­ally back Mc­Con­nell and En­zi all the more strik­ing, es­pe­cially con­sid­er­ing his anti-es­tab­lish­ment her­it­age. His fath­er, former Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, is viewed as a god­fath­er of the tea-party move­ment and wouldn’t even en­dorse the Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­ees for pres­id­ent in the past two elec­tions.

In Mis­sis­sippi, gear­ing up for a bid against a 35-year in­cum­bent, McDaniel said he would “ab­so­lutely wel­come” en­dorse­ments from tea-party sen­at­ors such as Paul. “I un­der­stand it could be a prob­lem for them to get in­volved, but we’re fight­ing for the fu­ture,” said the Mis­sis­sippi state sen­at­or.

An en­dorse­ment from the tea-party caucus is also on the wish list of South Car­o­lina Re­pub­lic­an Lee Bright, who is tak­ing on Sen. Lind­sey Gra­ham. “I’m philo­soph­ic­ally matched with them, and from a na­tion­al fun­drais­ing per­spect­ive their en­dorse­ment would make a big dif­fer­ence,” he said.

One of Paul’s top ad­visers and a former chief of staff, Doug Stafford, called back­ing a chal­lenger over a col­league “a dif­fi­cult thing to do.” Asked if Paul was risk­ing his tea-party cre­den­tials by back­ing two in­cum­bents, Stafford poin­ted to his sup­port for fel­low doc­tor Greg Ban­non, who is run­ning for the Sen­ate from North Car­o­lina against a more es­tab­lished state Re­pub­lic­an, House Speak­er Thom Tillis. “A lot of people are go­ing to line up on the oth­er side of the race,” Stafford said.

Paul’s en­dorse­ments re­flect a bal­an­cing act that could lead him to the 2016 pres­id­en­tial nom­in­a­tion: nur­tur­ing the tea-party faith­ful while build­ing some bridges to the more prag­mat­ic wing of the party. Ru­bio, who spear­headed pas­sage of bi­par­tis­an im­mig­ra­tion re­form le­gis­la­tion earli­er this year, ap­pears to have made a sim­il­ar polit­ic­al cal­cu­la­tion. But stay­ing out of primar­ies is also per­son­al for Ru­bio, whose Re­claim Amer­ica lead­er­ship PAC is one of the most suc­cess­ful in Wash­ing­ton. The Flor­ida Re­pub­lic­an wasn’t al­ways on top; at the out­set of his 2010 Sen­ate race, he raised $340,000 while then-Gov. Charlie Crist raked in $4.3 mil­lion.

“The ma­jor­ity of Wash­ing­ton-based groups en­dorsed his op­pon­ent, Charlie Crist, in his primary be­cause they didn’t think Marco could win,” said Ru­bio ad­viser Terry Sul­li­van. “He doesn’t want to make the same mis­take they made.”

So in­stead of med­dling in a primary that could cost him polit­ic­ally with one wing of the party or the oth­er, Ru­bio is bank­ing on a Re­pub­lic­an Sen­ate can­did­ate who has re­ceived nearly uni­ver­sal sup­port from his party: Rep. Tom Cot­ton of Arkan­sas. The $200,000 Re­claim Amer­ica re­cently lav­ished on a pro-Cot­ton tele­vi­sion ad ap­pears to be the biggest ex­pendit­ure by a Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship PAC so far in this elec­tion cycle. The PAC also spent about $140,000 earli­er this year on a spot de­fend­ing New Hamp­shire Sen. Kelly Ayotte’s op­pos­i­tion to gun-con­trol meas­ures.

Of the po­ten­tial Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial con­tenders on Cap­it­ol Hill, Cruz seems the least con­cerned with mak­ing friends. He has even re­fused to en­dorse the reelec­tion cam­paign of fel­low Tex­an John Cornyn, the No. 2 Re­pub­lic­an in the Sen­ate. “It is likely that I am go­ing to stay out of in­cum­bent primar­ies across the coun­try, either sup­port­ing in­cum­bents or op­pos­ing in­cum­bents,” he said months ago dur­ing a trip to New Hamp­shire.

Lee, who has ruled out a pres­id­en­tial bid, be­lieves that sen­at­ors should stay out of primar­ies. Lee de­feated former U.S. Sen. Bob Ben­nett at a GOP con­ven­tion.

“He feels like primar­ies are op­por­tun­it­ies for Re­pub­lic­ans to have a good policy de­bate without Sen­ate in­cum­bents weigh­ing in,” said Lee spokes­man Bri­an Phil­lips. “It’s a more com­fort­able place for him; that way, there’s no feel­ing of in­cum­bent pro­tec­tion or of chal­lenger pro­mo­tion.”

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