Tea party set to lose its final two battles in Kansas and Tennessee

In all likelihood, tea party candidates will not win their primaries in Kansas and Tennessee, meaning establishment Republicans will have beaten every tea party challenger for the Senate. But that doesn't mean the tea party is going away.

By , Guest blogger

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    Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) of Tennessee sits during a campaign stop in Dickson, Tenn., Sunday. His campaign appears to have been effective in fending off a tea party challenger in the Thursday Republican primary.
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With the exception of the surprise defeat of Eric Cantor in Virginia’s Seventh Congressional District, in which national tea party groups were not even involved, the tea party has not had a good primary season against targeted Republican incumbents. It started in February when efforts to unseat the second-highest-ranking Republican in the Senate, Texas Sen. John Cornyn, ended in failure thanks in large part to a lack of credible challengers. In Kentucky, Matt Bevin’s campaign received strong support from FreedomWorks and other national tea party groups in their efforts to do the unthinkable and defeat Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell only to see Mr. Bevin consistently trail in the polls and lose the election by nearly 100,000 votes. In South Carolina, the efforts to take down Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, who was a tea party target even before Senator McConnell was, fizzled out fairly quickly and Senator Graham ended up easily defeating a crowded field, beating his closest opponent by some 130,000 votes. The closest the teap arty has come to beating an incumbent came in Mississippi, where Chris McDaniel actually did defeat Sen. Thad Cochran in the first round on June 4 but failed to get enough votes to avoid a runoff. In the end, of course, Senator Cochran ended up winning the election by more than 6,000 votes.

With those defeats behind them, tea party forces now seem likely to face defeat in their final two battles against incumbents in Kansas and Tennessee:

WASHINGTON – Like most incumbent Republican senators this year who are facing a primary challenge from the right, Pat Roberts of Kansas refused a one-on-one debate against his hard-line opponent.

With the clock ticking, Mr. Roberts’s opponent, Milton Wolf, felt an urgent need to shake up the race before Tuesday’s primary. So he confronted the incumbent with TV cameras rolling as the three-term senator walked in downtown Emporia, Kan., last week. It did not seem to help: Mr. Roberts brushed off Mr. Wolf, an aide to the senator criticized the challenger’s “stunts,” and as Mr. Roberts spoke inside a business, Mr. Wolf’s campaign bus honked before eventually driving off.

Mr. Wolf, a 43-year-old radiologist and distant cousin of President Obama, has not been able to get much traction in his race against Mr. Roberts, 78, despite months of hammering the congressman-turned-senator as a creature of Washington who does not have a home of his own in Kansas.

Mr. Wolf has faced the same challenge as State Representative Joe Carr, the most formidable Republican taking on Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee in their state primary on Thursday. Despite challenging septuagenarian incumbents with clear vulnerabilities in states with increasingly conservative Republican electorates, neither Mr. Wolf nor Mr. Carr was able to raise significant money to finance an aggressive ad campaign or attract the Club for Growth, the most financially potent of the third-party groups that back Tea Party candidates.

By mid-July, Mr. Roberts had raised just under $4.5 million while Mr. Wolf had brought in a little over $1 million. The financial disparity between Mr. Alexander and Mr. Carr was even wider – Mr. Alexander had raised over $6.6 million to Mr. Carr’s $1.1 million.

Both senators also moved early to secure endorsements from state officials and from members of their congressional delegation, pre-empting challenges from those who could have potentially been their most formidable opponents.

Senate Republicans who have been prepared for challenges from the right have won easily. The one Republican senator who nearly lost his bid for renomination, Thad Cochran of Mississippi, had done little to get ready for his re-election before he suddenly announced late last year that he intended to seek a seventh term.

“As opposed to Senator Cochran, Lamar has been engaged in this race from go,” said Gov. Bill Haslam of Tennessee, a Republican.

Mr. Alexander, 74, began his political career 40 years ago with a failed bid for governor. Now, he is a former two-term governor and national education secretary who enjoys a deep relationship with many of his state’s voters. But his brand of center-right politics has made him vulnerable to a more ideologically driven candidate in a state where an earlier generation of moderate Republicans is being replaced by a mix of more conservative younger voters, new arrivals to the state and former Democrats.

Mr. Carr, 56, who has been attracting little notice from state and national conservatives for months, has finally begun to draw attention by criticizing Mr. Alexander for his vote last year on a comprehensive immigration overhaul that includes a pathway to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally that the right deems an amnesty.

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Mr. Wolf has relentlessly attacked Mr. Roberts for claiming that a room in the Dodge City home of a pair of campaign donors is listed as his voting address. And Mr. Roberts may have reinforced questions about his residency when, in a July radio interview, he said he returned to Kansas “every time I get an opponent.”

“If you’re an incumbent with 100 percent name ID and your ballot score is lower than the number of years you’ve been in Washington, you should be worried,” said Jason Miller, Mr. Wolf’s strategist, referring to some automated polls that the campaign is using that show Mr. Roberts is below 50 percent. The senator began working in the United States Capitol as a congressional aide 47 years ago.

But if Mr. Wolf ever had an opening it may have been lost when The Topeka Capital-Journal reported in February that the radiologist had posted gruesome X-rays of dead patients on Facebook along with inappropriate commentary about their condition. It almost certainly cost him the Club for Growth endorsement, and Mr. Roberts has continued to seize on the matter ever since, using the final weeks before the primary to broadcast TV ads reminding voters about the X-rays and Mr. Wolf’s accompanying commentary.

“Our polling has held up well, and there had been a steady increase in the number of voters with concern about Wolf’s character issues,” said Leroy Towns, Mr. Roberts’s campaign manager.

If both Mr. Alexander and Mr. Roberts win, it would be a significant victory for Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican minority leader, who this year vowed to “crush” conservative challenges of incumbent senators.

When this election cycle began, Roberts looked like he might be one of those incumbents who actually had something to worry about. As I noted when I wrote about this in February, the residency issue is one that had been used very effectively against Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar (R) in 2012 and had the potential to do the same with Roberts this year. In the Lugar/Richard Mourdock race, the residency issue ended up becoming a proxy for the argument that the long-serving senator had lost touch with his constituents and his home state and, in the case of the base of the Indiana Republican Party, was obviously a big part of the reason that a man who had easily won election to the Senate every time he ran since 1976 was defeated so easily by a relatively unknown candidate. Roberts seemed to suffer from many of the same problems but, unlike Senator Lugar, he acted quickly to address them, both on the merits of the residency claim and the overall issue of being connected to voters. To address the second issue, Roberts embarked on a serious of  “listening tour” events across the state that have continued right up to the eve of Tuesday’s primary. That, combined with the Roberts’s obvious fundraising advantages and the fact that he has used that to great effect in Kansas media, along with Wolf’s own missteps along the way appear to have been more than enough. While there has not been much independent polling of the Roberts-Wolf race, there has been enough to indicate that the senator will likely win quite handily Tuesday.

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In Tennessee, the situation has been markedly different. In some sense, Alexander has benefited from the same type of crowded field of challengers that Graham faced in his own primary race earlier this year, thus making it difficult for support to coalesce around a single challenger. Additionally, since Tennessee does not have runoff elections like South Carolina, from the beginning Alexander only needed to worry about getting a plurality of the vote rather than getting past the 50 percent threshold like Graham and others have. Additionally, notwithstanding the fact that tea party adherents have been critical of him, Alexander seems to have a far deeper well of support in his home state from which to draw thanks in no small part to his time as governor and the fact that he doesn’t seem to have forgotten the cardinal rule of politics: that one needs to stay close to your constituents. By all accounts, the challenges to Alexander never really had any chance from the start and, while polling has been light in the Volunteer State as well, what independent polling there has been has shown that the incumbent has very little to worry about in Thursday’s primary.

In many respects, these battles in Kansas and Tennessee are something of a quiet end to what had once seemed like it would be an epic battle between the tea party and “establishment” wings of the Republican Party. In some sense, of course, that is exactly what happened in Kentucky, South Carolina, and Mississippi and, in the end, the establishment ended up winning. Tea party forces also suffered setbacks in states such as North Carolina, where State House Speaker Thom Tillis held off a tea party-backed challenger in the primary, and Georgia, where the two candidates that advanced to the runoff were both more clearly aligned with the Chamber of Commerce/establishment wing of the GOP than the tea party. To the extent where we have seen tea party-backed candidates win, it has been in states such as Iowa and Nebraska where candidates like Joni Ernst and Ben Sasse managed to garner support from both wings of the Republican Party and the “showdown” never really materialized. There has been some success for tea party candidates in the House, such as David Brat in the Seventh District in Virginia and John Ratcliffe in Texas, who defeated Ralph Hall, the longest serving Republican in the House. Beyond that, however, 2014 has been largely an electoral disaster for the tea party.

The question, of course, is whether this record of defeat will end up harming the tea party movement in general, or at least the fundraising efforts of national organizations such as FreedomWorks, Club For Growth, and Senate Conservatives Fund, in particular. After all, if donors are looking at these things objectively, one would think that they would realize that they aren’t getting their money's worth from donating to these groups. Similarly, given the relative inability of the tea party movement as a whole to actually accomplish anything one would think that supporters would start to drift away as they realize that their efforts are for naught. While there has been some dropoff in donations to national groups over the past year or so, to some extent likely a result of their disastrous advocacy of the government shutdown scheme, there has been no sign, however, that the movement itself is wanting at all. Indeed, I would suspect that the tea party will remain a vocal force inside the Republican Party for some time to come, and most assuredly though the 2016 elections.

Doug Mataconis appears on the Outside the Beltway blog at http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/.

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