For Tea Party candidates, Tuesday wasn’t their night, again.
The biggest primary day so far of 2014 was a flop for conservatives who were eyeing their biggest target yet, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
But the Kentucky senator easily bested businessman Matt Bevin, with the Associated Press calling the race just minutes after polls in the Bluegrass State closed. In the end, he won by more 25 points.
Pro-business, establishment GOP groups elsewhere decided not to sit on the primary sidelines this cycle after free-spending conservative outside groups costing them what the establishment saw as winnable races in 2010 and 2012.
Though Tea Party groups argued their strategy would backfire with the grassroots, the gamble paid off. One of the biggest winners of the night was the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who saw all of their major endorsed candidates in Georgia, Kentucky, Idaho, Pennsylvania and Oregon net big wins.
“At the beginning of 2014, the Chamber outlined a goal of engaging early on behalf of pro-growth candidates, measuring their position on key economic issues, their ability to win, and their willingness to govern,” said Chamber political director Rob Engstrom. “In last night’s primaries in Idaho, Georgia, Kentucky, Oregon and Pennsylvania, the Chamber supported the candidate with a demonstrated record on issues critical to job creation across the country. Our focus on policies that will get America back to work through economic growth and reduced regulatory barriers clearly resonated, and we’re grateful to the Chamber’s federation members for helping us carry that message.”
The Georgia Senate race was the most consequential for the GOP hopes of taking back the upper chamber with a July runoff set between businessman David Perdue and Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), who was backed by the Chamber. The matchup between the two establishment candidates is the best case scenario for national Republican strategists. Perdue and Kingston both have ties to the GOP establishment and are proven fundraisers, and the two most conservative and gaffe-prone candidates Republicans were most worried about, controversial Reps. Paul Broun and Phil Gingrey, lost by a wide margin.
Former Secretary of State Karen Handel, who had some Tea Party support and the backing of former Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin, finished third. Big-spending national groups like Club for Growth and Senate Conservatives Fund never got involved in the Peach State. As Gingrey and Broun quickly faded, the under-funded Handel tried to harness that conservative support, but it was too little too late.
Pediatric neurosurgeon Monica Wehby nabbed the Republican nomination for Senate in Oregon on Tuesday night, giving Republicans the candidate they believe is their best hope to give Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) a challenge. The centrist Republican, also backed by the Chamber and 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney, gives Republicans a top candidate in a race that’s on their radar. While the liberal state certainly isn’t a top GOP target, thanks to the state’s problematic ObamaCare exchanges Republicans think they might have a chance.
Wehby managed to pull out the primary despite late-breaking news about her past personal relationships, which Democrats say will continue to be an issue in the race.
Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) won’t have a competitive general election, but his victory over his Tea Party-backed GOP challenger is a big symbolic victory for the establishment.
Simpson, a close ally of House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), was a top target of the fiscally conservative Club for Growth. But Simpson spent heavily himself and was also boosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Rifle Association, the Defending Main Street Super PAC and many others. A Chamber ad featuring former presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who's very popular in the heavily Mormon district, helped boost Simpson, and the NRA's seal of approval helped shore up his standing with conservatives.
But Tuesday's results also indicated that national conservative groups may have picked the wrong targets.
While McConnell and Simpson rolled in their elections, Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) was held to less than 55 percent of the vote by under-funded Tea Party candidate Art Halvorson (R). The only outside spending on Halvorson's behalf was $10,000 from the conservative Madison Project.
Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.) squeaked by in his primary last week against a Tea Party challenger who had almost no national support, winning with 53 percent of the vote, while Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.) defeated an underfunded conservative radio host in her primary two weeks ago, pulling 59 percent of the vote.
Conservative groups did get one win, as Georgia state Sen. Barry Loudermilk (R ) finished first in his primary to replace Gingrey and will face former Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) in a runoff. He had the backing of the Senate Conservatives fund and Madison Project.
Next week, Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas) faces a tough challenge from former U.S. Attorney John Ratcliffe (R), who national conservative groups didn't rally around until Ratcliffe forced Hall into a runoff in March.
And in two weeks, Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) is far from out of the woods against conservative state Sen. Chris McDaniel in what may be this cycle’s clearest establishment vs. Tea Party challenge.
Even with the GOP victories, Democrats argue the intraparty challenges have moved Republicans further to the right, giving them openings this fall. In Kentucky, Democrats have high hopes for Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes against McConnell, who railed against the GOP leader in her own victory speech. Democrats see another opening with the prolonged Republican contest in Georgia while their nominee, centrist Michelle Nunn, keeps banking cash for the fall.
“In order to avoid losing to the Tea Party, Washington Republicans have embraced their candidates and policies,” said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Justin Barasky. “It’s a good strategy in the primaries, but one that forecasts defeat for Republicans in the general election this fall. ”