Tea partiers line up to tackle GOP senators
By: Manu Raju and John Bresnahan
December 10, 2013 09:10 PM EST
GOP senators have aggressively tried to keep their conservative base at bay to ensure there’s virtually no space on their right for a primary foe to emerge.
That didn’t work so well.
Republican primary challengers are lining up to take on sitting senators next year in eight of the 12 races involving sitting GOP senators, gunning for party leaders like Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, veterans like Thad Cochran in Mississippi and Pat Roberts in Kansas and deal-makers like Lindsey Graham in South Carolina. Texas Sen. John Cornyn became the latest target this week, when a fiercely conservative congressman, Steve Stockman, suddenly announced plans to challenge the Senate’s second-ranking Republican in next March’s primary.
“I think it’s pretty thin gruel,” Cornyn said of Stockman’s case for his candidacy — that the senator didn’t fight hard enough to defund Obamacare.
The intraparty battles are the latest iteration of the tea party-versus-establishment war that has rocked the Republican Party since the 2010 elections and thwarted their efforts to retake the majority. After watching two sitting senators — Dick Lugar of Indiana and Bob Bennett of Utah — lose to insurgent candidates in the last two cycles, tea party-backed candidates are looking to repeat their luck in 2014 and fundamentally reshape the Senate. The threat of a challenge alone has implications for policy-making in Washington — its enough to scare off attempts by many GOP senators to cut deals with Democrats and risk a revolt from the right.
While many of the GOP senators facing primary threats hold safe Republican seats, party veterans fear the endless internecine warfare will distract from the overall goal of returning to the Senate majority for the first time since 2006.
Graham, who has seen his poll numbers sag back home, called the primary battles a “fight for the heart and soul of the Republican Party,” arguing that hardline conservatives are targeting “anyone who has ever worked with a Democrat on anything.”
“The party is going through a struggle here,” Graham added.
After watching a 36-year-veteran like Lugar lose handily in his primary last year, most Senate Republicans have taken the warnings seriously, methodically building massive campaign war chests and locking down support from the biggest threats to their seats.
Take Sen. Lamar Alexander. Less than a month after the November 2012 elections, the veteran Tennessee Republican immediately announced a lineup of GOP heavyweights to co-chair his 2014 campaign, including virtually every member in the House delegation and the sitting governor, Bill Haslam. When potential foes emerged, including health care executive Monty Lankford, Alexander quietly dropped by Lankford’s house to build a relationship and secure his support.
But that doesn’t mean Alexander is completely in the clear. While he lacks any serious primary foe so far, he’s facing a trio of challengers right now, meaning he’ll have to at least keep his eye on his right flank ahead of the April filing deadline for the August primary. And he’s already been whacked by the anti-GOP incumbent group, the Senate Conservatives Fund, which has spent money on the airwaves attacking Republican senators, including Alexander.
“It is interesting that most of us are preparing for campaigns from Republicans instead of Democrats,” Alexander said Tuesday. “I do think we have an unprecedented opportunity to capture the Senate in 2014 and lay the groundwork for capturing the presidency. And I would think all this effort and money that’s going into running against incumbent Republicans would be better directed towards defeating incumbent Democrats.”
Tea-party foes are unapologetic about their tactics.
“There is a real hunger here in Kansas for new leadership — for true, conservative leadership,” said 42-year-old Milton Wolf, a physician who is challenging Roberts in a primary and who won the endorsement of the Senate Conservatives Fund on Tuesday. “The problem is our party has not been loyal to its own principles. … Career politicians in both parties have let us down.”
Roberts, who was first elected to the House in 1980 and the Senate in 1996, said: “We’re going to run a very strong and aggressive race.”
Despite the internal party battles, the 2014 map is tilted heavily in the GOP’s favor, with Republicans fighting almost exclusively in red states to recapture the majority. They’ll have to win a net of six seats and defend at least two in red states, Georgia and Kentucky, where the Democrats are competitive. Vulnerable Democrats and open Democratic seats in South Dakota, West Virginia, Montana, North Carolina, Arkansas, Alaska and Louisiana have given the GOP its best shot at retaking the majority for years to come.
But the party may be forced to divert precious resources to help shore up their GOP senators in primaries, whether it’s dispatching senators to help raise cash for their colleagues or even spending money through the National Republican Senatorial Committee to protect incumbents. Even in states that lack a GOP incumbent, Republican primaries loom large, including in Georgia, Alaska and North Carolina, where Democrats hope that the GOP nominees will emerge damaged by the time of the general election.
And with a number of GOP senators, including the top two leaders, consumed with their own primary fights, they have less time to spend raising money for the NRSC at a time when it is being outraised by its Democratic counterpart.
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who leads the NRSC fundraising arm, praised Cornyn and McConnell for both trying to help the committee despite having to worry about their own races. But he added that the number of primary races does have a ripple effect.
“Some of our incumbents are going to have be more focused on their races than they otherwise could submit to the team,” Portman said.
Even Sen. Susan Collins, a moderate Maine Republican, is now facing a primary challenge from Erick Bennett, a conservative activist and GOP consultant who announced a bid last week.
“I have always expected that I would have a primary opponent, so I am not surprised,” Collins said Tuesday. “And I will just work as hard as I can to try to get significant numbers of Republican voters to turn out.”
It’s a problem that Democratic senators don’t really have to worry about in 2014, other than in Hawaii, where appointed Sen. Brian Schatz is fending off a challenge from Rep. Colleen Hanabusa in the Democratic primary. The closest Democratic primary in recent years has been in 2010 when then-Sen. Blanche Lincoln barely fended off a labor-backed primary challenge from then-Lt. Gov Bill Halter. She later lost in the general election.
The growing number of primary battles reflect the lack of influence GOP leaders have over activists on the ground. GOP senators say it comes down to the fact that the conservative grassroots don’t listen to party leaders in Washington the way the Democratic base defers to the White House and its own leadership.
“Democrats are more command-and-control, we’re more grassroots up,” Cornyn said.
Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), who chairs the NRSC, admitted that the primary challenges complicate the GOP drive to win control of the Senate in 2014. But he argued that the reason for the growing number of insurgent challengers can be attributed to the frustration with the Obama administration and the desire to see “greater change” in Washington.
“It’s a requirement [for incumbents] to spend money [in a primary], it doesn’t allow you to focus as much as you should or want to on your Democrat opponent,” Moran said. “But I don’t anything there is very debilitating.”
While several of the primary challenges are in states where Democrats stand little chance to win — such as Texas, South Carolina, Kansas, Wyoming, Tennessee and Missouri — the threat of a primary is enough to divert senators’ attention on their races back home.
Enzi, the three-term Wyoming Republican who is facing off against former Vice President Dick Cheney’s daugher, Liz, in next year’s primary, had done little fundraising before Cheney jumped into the race in July. But since then, he has more aggressively built his warchest and is not afraid to take subtle jabs at the former vice president’s daughter.
In an interview Tuesday, Enzi seemed to contrast his record with the fact that Cheney spent much of her life in Northern Virginia — not Wyoming.
“Everybody has a right to run for office, of course you have to earn it, and I’ve got over 35 years of serving the Wyoming people — besides being in business, an accountant and living in Wyoming,” he said.
Cheney declined to be interviewed, but she’s defended her family’s long ties to the state. On Tuesday, a spokeswoman said: “Wyoming needs a senator who will get results, not just go along to get along.”
While GOP leaders say all of their incumbents are preparing well for their primary challengers, Cochran remains, perhaps, the outlier. The Mississippi Republican, who joined the Senate in 1978, kept the political world guessing about his 2014 intentions until he suddenly announced he planned to run last Friday. He had raised just $402,000 through the end of last quarter with about $800,000 in the bank, and is facing a tea party-inspired challenge from Chris McDaniel, a state senator.
Asked about McDaniel on Tuesday, Cochran would only say: “I don’t know him.”