Don’t Worry Republicans, Your Tea Party Challengers Aren’t Going to Win

Seven of 12 Republican senators are facing primary challenges. Most of them have nothing to worry about.

Steve Stockman, Texas District 36. 
National Journal
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
Dec. 10, 2013, 9:16 a.m.

To the un­ini­ti­ated, Rep. Steve Stock­man of Texas holds the re­sume of someone who could threaten Sen. John Cornyn. The two-time con­gress­man’s out­spoken, off-the-cuff con­ser­vat­ism would, on pa­per, be the right pose for a chal­lenger mount­ing an in­sur­gent cam­paign against a deep-pock­eted sen­at­or who’s seen as too close to the es­tab­lish­ment.

But dive a bit deep­er, and Stock­man’s re­cord is filled with ob­vi­ous land­mines that would scare away even the most com­mit­ted tea-party al­lies. As a con­gress­man in the 1990s, he ac­cused the Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion of sta­ging the Waco raid to pro­mote an as­sault-weapons ban. Stock­man sup­posedly man­aged sev­er­al busi­nesses that may not even ex­ist. He was once caught smug­gling Vali­um wrapped in his un­der­wear. He cur­rently holds more cam­paign debt than money in his cam­paign ac­count. Even the Club for Growth, which en­joys pes­ter­ing the GOP es­tab­lish­ment, de­clined to en­dorse his can­did­acy Tues­day, while prais­ing Cornyn’s con­ser­vat­ive re­cord.

Stock­man may be an ex­treme ex­ample, but be­hind the tea-party wave that’s chal­lenged the su­prem­acy of the Re­pub­lic­an es­tab­lish­ment is a slew of not-ready-for-prime­time con­ser­vat­ive Sen­ate can­did­ates. Out­side groups, led by the Sen­ate Con­ser­vat­ives Fund, have ral­lied be­hind nu­mer­ous primary chal­lengers, more fo­cused on their prin­ciples than their abil­ity to win. But like an un­dis­cip­lined bat­ter swinging at every pitch, the GOP has shown that there’s little con­cer­ted strategy be­hind the op­pos­i­tion. Con­ser­vat­ives may boast a re­cord num­ber of can­did­ates run­ning against sit­ting Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­ors—sev­en of the 12 GOP sen­at­ors up in 2014 are fa­cing primary op­pon­ents—but their bat­ting av­er­age could be em­bar­rass­ingly low at the end.

In­deed, the Club for Growth has en­dorsed only one of the reneg­ades, Mis­sis­sippi state Sen. Chris McDaniel, with no plans to get in­volved in any oth­er Sen­ate races.

“Our ef­fect­ive­ness comes from our un­com­prom­ising fo­cus on our mis­sion and our proven abil­ity to af­fect the out­come of races. If we got in­volved in races where we were sure that the can­did­ates were go­ing to lose no mat­ter what we did “¦ we just would be wast­ing our mem­bers’ money,” said Club for Growth spokes­man Barney Keller.

Of the sev­en primary chal­lenges, Re­pub­lic­an strategists view the Mis­sis­sippi Sen­ate race as the only con­test where the chal­lenger has a ser­i­ous shot at win­ning. In that race, McDaniel, known as the Jim De­Mint of the Mis­sis­sippi state Le­gis­lature, jumped in the race be­fore Sen. Thad Co­chran an­nounced his reelec­tion plans. After the Thanks­giv­ing hol­i­day, Co­chran an­nounced he’s run­ning for a sev­enth term, but he hasn’t faced a ser­i­ous chal­lenge in dec­ades. Con­ser­vat­ive groups have com­mis­sioned polling in Mis­sis­sippi, con­clud­ing that the seni­or ap­pro­pri­at­or is at risk of los­ing reelec­tion.

Oth­er Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­ors are vul­ner­able on pa­per, but their pro­spects im­prove dra­mat­ic­ally based on their com­pet­i­tion. Sen. Lind­sey Gra­ham’s pop­ular­ity in South Car­o­lina has dipped over his ad­vocacy for im­mig­ra­tion re­form, but none of his chal­lengers has put to­geth­er a cam­paign or­gan­iz­a­tion threat­en­ing his reelec­tion. Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell’s ap­prov­al rat­ings are in dan­ger­ous ter­rit­ory in Ken­tucky, but he’s lately spent more time fo­cused on his Demo­crat­ic op­pon­ent than his deep-pock­eted tea-party rival. Sen. Lamar Al­ex­an­der raised mil­lions in pre­par­a­tion for a tough primary chal­lenge in Ten­ness­ee, but his op­pon­ent, state Rep. Joe Carr, is non­vi­able, even to harsh Al­ex­an­der crit­ics. Even Liz Cheney, po­s­i­tion­ing her­self as a tea-party reneg­ade in Wyom­ing, badly trails Sen. Mi­chael En­zi in early polling.

If Stock­man didn’t carry loads of per­son­al bag­gage, his odds against the former NR­SC chair­man would still be near-im­possible. With the Texas primary in March, chal­lengers have only three months to raise the mil­lions ne­ces­sary to mount a ser­i­ous cam­paign in an ex­pens­ive state. Stock­man ended Septem­ber with his cam­paign ac­count in debt.

In fact, the con­sequence of run­ning weak chal­lengers against vul­ner­able Sen­ate in­cum­bents is that it has em­boldened the Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­ors to double down on their in­ner mav­er­icks. In the face of primary op­pos­i­tion, Gra­ham has re­mained a stal­wart sup­port­er of com­pre­hens­ive im­mig­ra­tion re­form, con­tinu­ing to an­ger parts of the base. Mc­Con­nell helped forge the deal to end the gov­ern­ment shut­down, show­ing less con­cern over his primary op­pon­ent Matt Bev­in. He’s now launch­ing a cam­paign against the le­git­im­acy of the Sen­ate Con­ser­vat­ives Fund, which en­dorsed Bev­in. Al­ex­an­der still talks about his re­cord of bi­par­tis­an­ship, and has been a crit­ic of the party’s tea-party wing.

“It’s dif­fi­cult to beat an in­cum­bent. It’s ex­pens­ive. If you bark all the time and nev­er win, it doesn’t ac­com­plish much. If you en­dorse primary chal­lengers willy-nilly and lose, you lose the abil­ity to af­fect policy,” said one GOP strategist in­volved in Sen­ate primar­ies.

But groups back­ing con­ser­vat­ive primary chal­lenges ar­gue that the slew of Re­pub­lic­an primary chal­lengers is a re­flec­tion of genu­ine grass­roots res­ist­ance to the party, a point bolstered by the GOP’s his­tor­ic­ally low ap­prov­al rat­ings. The Sen­ate Con­ser­vat­ives Fund, the most act­ive of the con­ser­vat­ive groups, has en­dorsed three primary op­pon­ents to sit­ting Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­ors. Just this week, it re­buked Cornyn’s re­cord in a state­ment about the Texas Sen­ate race—while stop­ping short of en­dors­ing Stock­man—and backed phys­i­cian Milton Wolf in his chal­lenge against Sen. Pat Roberts of Kan­sas.

“These can­did­ates would not be pop­ping up and run­ning if they didn’t be­lieve there was sup­port for them to run. It’s something that Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans need to look in­ward to eval­u­ate, why is this hap­pen­ing?” said Sen­ate Con­ser­vat­ives Fund Ex­ec­ut­ive Dir­ect­or Matt Hoskins.

“That was why De­Mint cre­ated the Sen­ate Con­ser­vat­ives Fund. He wanted to level the play­ing field, wanted to get a can­did­ate great on the is­sues who had prom­ise, to give them a fight­ing chance.”

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