WASHINGTON – The tea party movement, staggered by dwindling popularity and strong challenges from the Republican establishment, faces a series of crucial primary election tests over the next month, and its prospects look grim.
From Tuesday to June 3, Republican primaries in North Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky, Idaho and Mississippi will provide clues as to whether the grass-roots movement can regain the momentum that made it a major national force at the start of the decade.
This uncertain outlook is new territory for the tea party, a loose confederation of confident activists determined to drive down the federal debt and reduce the size and mission of government. It was credited with helping to elect 87 Republican freshmen in 2010, enough to give the party control of the House of Representatives, and it’s been responsible for helping reshape the image of the Republican Party.
Recently, the movement has struggled to match its early success. Its embrace of Senate candidates who proved too extreme for the general electorate arguably cost Republicans the five seats they needed in 2010 and 2012 to pull even with Democrats.
By the end of last year, about 1 in 5 people told Gallup they supported the movement, down from about 1 in 3 in 2010. The Republican establishment noticed, embracing some tea party views but also pouring money and resources into candidates facing insurgent challenges.
“In 2010 the establishment ignored the tea party. In 2012 they tried to get along. In 2014 they’re fighting back,” said Jennifer Duffy, Senate analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
Are they ever. Kentucky features a bruising Senate primary May 20 between one of insider Washington’s most towering figures, Senate Republican leader and 29-year incumbent Mitch McConnell, versus Louisville businessman Matt Bevin.
The same day, Georgia stages its own Republican Senate slugfest, a free-for-all in which five candidates, including tea party favorite Rep. Paul Broun, are given a decent shot of winning. In Idaho the same day, Rep. Mike Simpson, another Republican member of Congress with deep ties to official Washington, faces Idaho Falls lawyer Bryan Smith.
The first clues about the tea party’s fate will come Tuesday in North Carolina. State House Speaker Thom Tillis faces Greg Brannon, who has strong tea party backing, and the Rev. Mark Harris, a Charlotte Baptist pastor.
The fiercest fight might come at the end of this cycle, June 3 in Mississippi. Thirty-five-year Senate veteran Thad Cochran, who stands to head the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee if Republicans win control of the chamber next fall, first has to defeat state Sen. Chris McDaniel.
Gauging the tea party’s influence is difficult. It’s become more politically sophisticated, setting up political action committees and getting help from a strong conservative fundraising network.
History shows that loyalists are far more likely to vote, particularly in primaries. In Mississippi, for instance, the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund plans robocalls and other strategies to find like-minded voters.
“We emphasize personal freedom, economic freedom and a debt-free future,” explained Kevin Broughton, the group’s Jackson-based communications director.
Another group, the Tea Party Express, began a “Fighting for Liberty” bus tour April 19 that features speakers and entertainers. It stopped in Biloxi, Mississippi, last week, and is threading its way through the Midwest. It stopped in Kansas City and Wichita this week, hoping to help Milton Wolf, whom the Tea Party Express has endorsed over incumbent Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., in that state’s Aug. 5 primary.
Mainstream Republicans are fighting back, worried the movement will nominate candidates seen as too doctrinaire to win in November.