They’ll always have Nebraska.
Conservative groups, from the Club for Growth to the Senate Conservatives Fund, have spent more than $12 million this year trying to oust GOP establishment candidates, with the Senate their top prize. So far, they have little to show for it.
Their biggest defeat came Tuesday night in Mississippi, a race that was supposed to be their best shot. Not only did they fail to topple Sen. Thad Cochran, they also watched their preferred candidate in Oklahoma’s Senate race, T.W. Shannon, get crushed by one with establishment ties.
Just a month before, the tea-party-aligned groups failed to knock off Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky. And while the conservative groups can point to a victory in Nebraska, where Ben Sasse won the contested GOP primary for Senate, that was a race the GOP establishment pretty much ignored.
The establishment’s biggest loss this year came in a House race, when Majority Leader Eric Cantor fell in his Virginia primary, but that was a contest that the big-spending conservative groups played virtually no role in.
The results, which come as establishment groups have stepped up their game to fend off the tea party insurgents, have emboldened more Republicans to say what they’ve long believed: Outside groups are spending too much time and money going after the GOP, when they should be focused on Democrats.
“It just takes my breath away that we’ve poured all this money down the drain,” said Republican Roger Wicker, a Cochran supporter and junior senator from Mississippi. “I just don’t understand what the motivation is.”
The outside groups argue they are motivated by one simple thing: Moving the party further to the right and ejecting GOP squishes.
“We’ll challenge anybody,” said Adam Brandon, executive vice president of FreedomWorks.
In the midterm elections this year, four of the most aggressive right-wing groups — Club for Growth, Senate Conservatives Fund, FreedomWorks and Tea Party Patriots — have together spent $12.5 million.
The Mississippi Senate race was by far the biggest blow to these outside groups, which spent $7.2 million on behalf of state Sen. Chris McDaniel, who ended up losing the Tuesday cliffhanger.
The Club alone spent $3.2 million in that race, followed by the Senate Conservatives Fund, which shelled out $1.6 million. The two groups have been the biggest spenders on the conservative side this cycle. The Senate Conservatives Fund, for instance, spent $2 million trying to oust McConnell.
The most amount of cash the major conservative groups spent on a race they won was in Nebraska, where they collectively spent about $1.5 million pushing Sasse to victory. The GOP establishment largely stayed out of that Senate race because the seat is expected to stay in Republican control.
Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn, a Texas Republican who won his primary this March despite enduring attacks from FreedomWorks and Senate Conservatives Fund, said the groups’ donors may have second thoughts next time around. “If you are an investor, and you got to look at the return on your investment, and it doesn’t look all that good,” he said.
Added Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, another member of the GOP leadership: “I would think that this year’s primary results may very well focus conservative donors on general election victories rather than fights in primaries that don’t necessarily need to happen.”
“I hope it wakes them up,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who defeated a tea party challenge in his 2012 primary. “The problem is they can’t raise money without attacking fellow Republicans.”
Conservative groups say the money is well worth the effort to stiffen Republicans’ spines.
“We aren’t going to win every race, but we will keep fighting to elect true conservatives,” said Ken Cuccinelli, the former Virginia attorney general who now heads the Senate Conservatives Fund. “If the grass roots didn’t try to elect insurgent candidates, Ted Cruz, Mike Lee and Rand Paul would not be in the Senate today, nor would Ben Sasse be on his way to the Senate.”
Brandon, of FreedomWorks, also noted that the groups were focused on “building the bench” at the state level.
“This is the most powerful social movement in the United States since the American civil rights movement, and we expect to have a similar impact on society and politics,” Brandon said. “We’re going to have good election cycles and bad election cycles, but the most important thing is that we grow that caucus.”
Indeed, some on the right argued that — at the very least — GOP-establishment backed candidates were adopting their mantra on the campaign trail and moving further to the right. Blunt seemed to agree.
“I actually think that the conservative groups have moved the discussion in the way that they would want to move the discussion,” Blunt said.
Still, conservative groups acknowledge that campaign trail rhetoric is one thing — and how a lawmaker votes is another.
“I think all Republican candidates have been influenced by [the conservative grass roots] one way or another,” said Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), who backed Shannon and Sasse.
One reason the conservative groups haven’t fared that well is that there’s been far more serious pushback from the establishment this year than past cycles.
In a major House race in Idaho last month, for instance, outside groups — namely the Club for Growth — spent more than $600,000 on behalf of Bryan Smith, who was eventually defeated by Rep. Mike Simpson. Establishment groups outspent the tea party groups 4 to 1 in this race. (The top spender on the establishment side – the U.S. Chamber of Commerce – has spent $14 million alone.)
In a statement, Chris Chocola, president of the Club for Growth, pointed to the group’s successes over the years and said it would continue to fund “upstart” candidates. For the rest of this year, he said, the group would focus on electing Tom Cotton in the Arkansas Senate race, Dan Sullivan in the Alaska Senate race and, of course, Sasse.
But Cotton and Sullivan both draw support from the establishment wing of the party as well. Similarly, in Iowa, conservative groups such as Citizens United, Senate Conservatives Fund and the Tea Party Patriots joined forces with the likes of the Chamber to back Joni Ernst, who won the GOP nomination for retiring Sen. Tom Harkin’s seat.
“If we don’t work as a team we won’t be able to achieve what all of us want for the American people,” said Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, a vice chairman at the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
There have been some successes in House races.
Tea party groups spent about $200,000 backing John Ratcliffe, who took out the first incumbent this cycle, 91-year-old Texas Rep. Ralph Hall.
In West Virginia’s 2nd District, Senate Conservatives Fund, Citizens United and two other groups spent $160,000 on behalf of Alex Mooney, who won the nomination in a crowded field. And there are handful of other key House races from Georgia to Washington that conservative groups have their eye on in the coming weeks.
But the real contest this year is for the Senate. Republicans need to net six seats to win the Senate, and GOP leaders now feel more confident after their string of primary wins over their tea party foes.
In an interview Wednesday, McConnell was clearly encouraged by the latest results.
“Our job is to get the most electable candidates on the November ballot everywhere,” McConnell said. “And so far this year, I think we have produced through the primaries that have occurred so far, nominees who have the best chance of actually winning.”
McConnell added: “And it’s important to remember that winners make policy, and losers go home.”