Four years after the tea party rocked the political world by ousting several prominent Republicans in Congress, the ultra-conservative movement finds itself with slimmer prospects as it moves into the new election season.
In Tuesday’s first-in-the-nation primaries in Texas, the movement mostly settled for having an impact on key races rather than actually winning them. That may become a pattern in other states as primaries continue into the fall, many national GOP strategists believe.
Though the hard-right flank is still powerful in the conservative heartland, its candidates face a different environment than was present in 2010 and 2012, when they won a series of key contests, highlighted by the election of Sen. Ted Cruz in Texas.
“In 2010, the ideological intensity was burning hot inside the GOP giving rise to the tea party,” said Greg Strimple, a Republican pollster and senior adviser to Texas U.S. Sen. John Cornyn. “As the party has moved to meet their concerns, the tea party’s outsized role has diminished.”
Only one Republican tea party candidate is seen as having a real shot at a GOP Senate nomination this year: Mississippi state Sen. Chris McDaniel, who is challenging six-term Sen. Thad Cochran. No tea party challengers are expected to win in this year’s House races.
Four years ago, 28 of the 60 new Republicans elected to the House were backed by the tea party. Movement favorites won Senate seats in Utah, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Kentucky, Florida and Texas in the last two elections.
What’s changed is that established Republicans are now highly wary of possible threats and preparing both politically and financially. They’ve been aggressively courting the movement’s most conservative voters for themselves.
Cornyn, who defeated two tea party opponents in Texas this week, spent more than $3 million on advertising and adopted the movement’s issues and fierce rhetoric, especially in denouncing President Barack Obama. He regularly questioned Obama’s truthfulness in explaining the 2012 death of the U.S. ambassador to Libya, a particular tea party rallying cry.
Mainstream conservative organizations, such as the Chamber of Commerce, have also gotten heavily involved. Groups provided negative research and money for massive advertising blitzes aimed at challengers’ perceived weaknesses.
In Idaho, the chamber has already spent $155,000 on advertising to counter the attempt by tea party challenger Bryan Smith to unseat eight-term Rep. Mike Simpson.
“No question, there’s a lesson learned from past years that you can’t take your opponent for granted,” said Henry Barbour, a Republican National Committee member from Mississippi who is supporting Cochran.
In Texas, in addition to Cornyn’s victory, senior Republican Rep. Pete Sessions racked up 64 percent of the vote in defeating a Dallas-area tea party figure who had accused him of not being conservative enough. Sessions spent more than $300,000 on the race.
The movement’s highlight in Texas was the first-place finish of state lawmaker and talk show host Dan Patrick in the lieutenant governor’s race. Patrick placed ahead of incumbent David Dewhurst, who was politically damaged in an unsuccessful Senate bid in 2012. They will meet in the runoff.
But even without winning races, the tea party is having an impact by pushing many Republicans further to the right and toward its top priorities, especially reducing government spending.
After senior members like Cornyn and Sessions are forced to campaign so hard for hard-right support, they may wind up legislating much like the tea party candidates who would have replaced them, tea party activists say.
“The tea party may not be waving the tea party banner everywhere like they did. But that’s because everyone on our side has picked up those issues,” said David Carney, a tea party-oriented strategist advising Texas gubernatorial nominee Greg Abbott.
Many of the tea party candidates in other conservative states this year are stronger than those in Texas. Still, it appears that influence rather than victories may be the movement’s chief achievement this year.
In Kentucky, where it appeared Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, 72, might be vulnerable after three decades in Washington, his campaign opened up a lead after blitzing his tea party opponent, Matt Bevin, with ads citing his 2008 remarks praising the federal Wall Street bailout. This week, McConnell took the stage at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference with a rifle to demonstrate his ardor for gun rights.
In Kansas, two-term Sen. Pat Roberts is leading tea party favorite Milton Wolf after raising $3.3 million — about 10 times more than his challenger. His spokeswoman, Sarah Little, said he has owned a home in Kansas since 1992 that’s currently being leased and pays rent at another residence.
The most glaring exception to the establishment’s self-defense strategy has been Mississippi’s Cochran, who has all but ignored the challenge from McDaniel.
Cochran, 76, embodies the Senate’s more genteel, run-on-your-record tradition. He has been chairman and ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which has opened him up to charges from McDaniel of allowing excessive spending.
But a friendly outside group, Mississippi Conservatives PAC, has come to his aid with a series of attack ads citing a remark by McDaniel that appeared to question federal aid for Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina. The race is close.
“It’s disappointing that Thad Cochran’s allies…have resorted to distorting Chris McDaniel’s conservative record,” said McDaniel spokesman Noel Fritsch said.