There aren’t three Republican senators more vulnerable to a tea-party challenge than Lamar Alexander, Lindsey Graham, and Mitch McConnell — longtime incumbents with a history of deal-making and moderation that conservatives love to hate.
But conservative activists itching for primary fights are missing an essential element of victory: candidates.
In each of the three races, conservatives worry that they’ve yet to find a credible primary challenger, one capable of knocking off a better-known and better-financed incumbent. And now they fear that they’ll squander some golden opportunities in what should be a great cycle.
It’s not easy to defeat a Republican incumbent. While the establishment routinely loses open-seat primaries, only two GOP senators have lost a primary since 2010 — Robert Bennett of Utah in 2010 and Richard Lugar of Indiana in 2012.
“In order to run a successful grassroots campaign and defeat established incumbents with all their advantages, the candidate needs to be compelling,” said Matt Hoskins, spokesman for the Senate Conservatives Fund, a group that frequently targets GOP senators it views as too moderate. “More times than not, the candidates who defeat incumbents are exceptional candidates.”
The problem for tea-party activists is especially acute in South Carolina and Tennessee. It’s not that Sens. Graham and Alexander haven’t drawn challengers — Graham, in fact, has three of them. It’s that conservatives say the candidates who have emerged lack the profile, message, and skill to defeat an incumbent.
Alexander, who has sparred with Volunteer State tea-party groups over the need for pragmatism in government, drew his first primary challenger, state Rep. Joe Carr, last week. The local lawmaker had been running against GOP Rep. Scott DesJarlais, but dropped out of the race to take on Alexander.
The two-term senator’s votes this year have exposed vulnerabilities in a GOP primary. He backed cloture for a vote on expanding gun-sale background checks — although he opposed the measure itself — and supported comprehensive immigration reform, which conservatives decry as amnesty.
But Carr, according to conservatives tracking the race, isn’t poised to take advantage of Alexander’s vulnerabilities, because of his own baggage. Last year, Carr supported the incendiary remarks made by former Rep. Todd Akin, who suggested that women can’t become pregnant after a rape.
“We’re a little concerned about Carr,” Hoskins said. “If he couldn’t get traction in House race, he probably can’t get traction in Senate race.”
Three candidates have already stepped up to take on Graham in the Palmetto State: state Sen. Lee Bright, social-conservative activist Richard Cash, and Nancy Mace, who was the first woman to graduate from the Citadel. She is considered the strongest of the trio, but thus far, few consider her a serious threat to Graham, despite his outspoken advocacy for immigration reform.
“The early stages of her campaign indicate she might not be ready for prime time,” said Chip Felkel, a veteran South Carolina GOP strategist.
He added: “[Graham] will have a race, but I think he’ll win. It won’t be nearly as competitive as some people would like to think. So far, the tea party has never shown an ability to rally around one person or issue.”
McConnell faces the most significant primary challenge of the three. Matt Bevin, a Louisville-area businessman, has the best chance to emerge as the next Mike Lee or Richard Mourdock, the two challengers who defeated an incumbent Republican. Bevin has certainly gained McConnell’s attention: The Kentucky lawmaker has already aired three negative ads targeting Bevin personally, and last week the senator released an internal poll showing him up big in a potential primary.
Bevin has yet to gain the coveted endorsement of the anti-tax Club for Growth, the de facto marker of a serious primary challenge. The club has said only that it is “watching” the race.
Conservatives still have time to recruit more candidates . Tennessee conservatives, for example, are holding a series of forums in September in which prospective challengers are invited to speak, a sort of monthlong audition to find and unite behind a candidate. Or conservatives can hope the looming fight over defunding Obamacare sparks more interest. Even as many GOP leaders back off the defunding idea , many activists remain fervently behind it.
“We’ve seen an increase in the number of candidates coming in to our office who are challenging or want to challenge incumbent members of Congress,” said Barney Keller, spokesman for the Club for Growth. “Much of that is born out of a frustration that Republican leaders aren’t doing enough to fight Obamacare and limit the size of government.”
What We're Following See More »
Trump, in a statement: “Based on the fact that the Democratic nominating process is totally rigged and Crooked Hillary Clinton and Deborah Wasserman Schultz will not allow Bernie Sanders to win, and now that I am the presumptive Republican nominee, it seems inappropriate that I would debate the second place finisher. ... I will wait to debate the first place finisher in the Democratic Party, probably Crooked Hillary Clinton, or whoever it may be.”
"The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration identified on Friday the makes and models of 12 million cars and motorcycles that have been recalled because of defective air bag inflators made by Japanese supplier Takata. The action includes 4.3 million Chryslers; 4.5 million Hondas; 1.6 million Toyotas; 731,000 Mazdas; 402,000 Nissans; 383,000 Subarus; 38,000 Mitsubishis; and 2,800 Ferraris. ... Analysts have said it could take years for all of the air bags to be replaced. Some have questioned whether Takata can survive the latest blow."
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson says 41 Secret Service agents have been disciplined in the fallout of an investigation over the agency's leak of personnel files. The leaker, who has resigned, released records showing that Oversight and Government Reform Chair Jason Chaffetz—who was leading an investigation of Secret Service security lapses—had applied for a job at the agency years before. The punishments include reprimands and suspension without pay. "Like many others I was appalled by the episode reflected in the Inspector General’s report, which brought real discredit to the Secret Service," said Johnson.
Mitt Romney spoke in an interview with the Wall Street Journal about his decision to challenge Donald Trump. “Friends warned me, ‘Don’t speak out, stay out of the fray,’ because criticizing Mr. Trump will only help him by giving him someone else to attack. They were right. I became his next target, and the incoming attacks have been constant and brutal.” Still, "I wanted my grandkids to see that I simply couldn’t ignore what Mr. Trump was saying and doing, which revealed a character and temperament unfit for the leader of the free world.”
"A bill to help Puerto Rico handle its $70 billion debt crisis is facing an uncertain future in the Senate. No Senate Democrats have endorsed a bill backed by House Speaker Paul Ryan and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, while some are actively fighting it. ... On the Republican side, senators say they’re hopeful to pass a bill but don’t know if they can support the current legislation — which is expected to win House approval given its backing from leaders in that chamber."