Can the Tea Party Find Any Candidates?

From left: Sens. Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham and Lamar Alexander are pictured. (AP Photos)
National Journal
Alex Roarty
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Alex Roarty
Aug. 26, 2013, 2 a.m.

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.”

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