Tea Partyers fall in line
© Courtesy of Tillis for Congress

Tea Partyers have learned to play nice after a cycle of knockdown, drag-out fights with the Republican establishment that have gotten them nowhere. 

Sensing a GOP majority in the Senate is within reach, conservative groups have put down their bombs and are working together with establishment actors to make that happen — even backing formerly sworn enemies in some races.

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In New Hampshire, Tea Party Patriots (TPP) has launched a ground effort to help elect Republican Scott Brown, who has drawn the ire of conservatives for backing stricter gun control in some cases. In North Carolina, TPP and others are actively supporting Republican Thom Tillis, who was far from being the conservative pick in his primary. He faces Sen. Kay HaganKay Ruthven HaganPolitics is purple in North Carolina Democrats can win North Carolina just like Jimmy Carter did in 1976 North Carolina will be a big battleground state in 2020 MORE (D). 

The Tea Party Express (TPE) is now actively backing Sen. Pat RobertsCharles (Pat) Patrick RobertsOvernight Finance: Lawmakers, Treasury look to close tax law loopholes | Trump says he backs gas tax hike | Markets rise despite higher inflation | Fannie Mae asks for .7B Senators working on fix to agriculture provision in GOP tax law Trump budget would slash crop insurance funds for farmers MORE (R-Kan.) — little liked among Tea Partyers — and former South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds (R), for Senate. 

At the very least, Tea Partyers are showing a willingness to “hold their nose and vote,” as FreedomWorks Executive Vice President Adam Brandon put it, because of the understanding that a Republican-controlled Senate with some impurities is better than nothing at all.

“Our members have told us that right now, having a Republican-controlled Senate and firing [Majority Leader] Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidWATCH: There is no Trump-Russia collusion and the media should stop pushing this The demise of debate in Congress ‘North by Northwest,’ the Carter Page remake MORE (D-Nev.) are their top priority,” Jenny Beth Martin, TPP president, told The Hill.

It’s a stunning reversal from early on in the cycle, when establishment actors were gearing up for what was expected to be a fierce fight with Tea Partyers in a number of primaries nationwide. But despite promising a fierce battle, an establishment bloodbath never materialized, and Tea Party groups failed to knock off a single incumbent senator this cycle. 

While some establishment Republicans have privately declared victory over the Tea Party, some right wing activists say the willingness to work with these groups and candidates doesn’t suggest Tea Partyers have been cowed by those defeats. As TPE founder Sal Russo put it, Tea Partyers are simply waking up to the fact that electoral politics requires a willingness to accept impurities within the Republican Party.

“In 2010, we thought it was very important to get people’s attention, and so we had to make that statement and challenge the establishment,” he said. “2014 was a time to take back the Senate — it wasn’t a time to purify the party.”

Tea Partyers do note that they came close in a number of races, like Kansas, and continue to insist they should’ve won in Mississippi. The wounds from those battles, they say, haven’t healed — but greater priorities have taken over.

With a number of races at razor thin margins, control of the Senate could come down to a few thousand votes here and there. Republicans claim an enthusiasm advantage over Democrats that they expect to help them win a number of crucial contests, but Democrats have been pouring resources into their ground game in hopes of mitigating a voter turnout expected to be lower than in presidential elections.

For the GOP enthusiasm advantage that’s been measured in polling to actually translate to wins at the ballot box, however, Tea Partyers need to head to the polls.

“The inability to be able to turn the conversation in Washington towards conservatives is really what drives the frustration. They can do what they did in 2006 and 2008 and they can stay home,” Russo warned, noting the last two cycles that saw Democrats make significant gains in the House and Senate.

Conservative voters are of particular importance — and their turnout is particularly unclear— in Kansas and South Dakota, considered easy wins for the GOP until recently. Polling has showed the GOP candidates, Roberts in Kansas and Rounds in South Dakota, to be surprisingly vulnerable to their independent challengers. 

Neither GOP hopeful is well liked by conservatives, and in Kansas, the rift runs so deep between the two sides of the party that representatives from Roberts’s campaign have met with activists to try to smooth things over.

So the TPE endorsement for Roberts, as well as his support from Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzOvernight Health Care: Trump eases rules on insurance outside ObamaCare | HHS office on religious rights gets 300 complaints in a month | GOP chair eyes opioid bill vote by Memorial Day HHS official put on leave amid probe into social media posts Trump, Pence to address CPAC this week MORE (R-Texas) and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R), were considered serious coups for the senator.

Even Russo admits the incumbent senator isn’t the TPE’s ideal pick. 

“We never said anything was wrong with Pat Roberts’s voting record. … We thought he lost touch with Kansas a little bit, maybe,” he said.

One conservative group that’s remained notably aggressive is the Senate Conservatives Fund, which is continuing to engage in the Louisiana Senate race in support of Tea Party-backed Republican Rob Maness, a candidate establishment Republicans see as a nuisance to their pick for the seat, Rep. Bill Cassidy.

SCF President Ken Cucinelli said he believes the rift in the party still remains and could continue to affect the GOP beyond November.

“Conservatives didn’t take out a hatchet, Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellLawmakers feel pressure on guns Bipartisan group of House lawmakers urge action on Export-Import Bank nominees Curbelo Dem rival lashes out over immigration failure MORE and the establishment Republicans did. There is no evidence they have buried that hatchet, and the grassroots is very, very aware of the establishment-induced rift in the party,” he said in an email. 

He added: “If the GOP doesn’t sincerely work toward conservative policies, they can expect the battle to arise again in two years with ever-greater energy.”

Conservatives are reluctant to discuss what they plan to do post-November if the GOP does take full control of Congress, but they are warning that victory could raise expectations on Republicans to deliver on their promises to the grassroots — and if they’re unable to, they could face greater backlash next cycle.

“[Conservatives] may show up to the ballot box and a lot of them are going to hold their nose and vote, but the main thing they’re working on right now is keeping issues like ObamaCare front and center in these campaigns. If there is a Republican takeover in the Senate, it’s going to be very clear that ObamaCare is a thing they need to take action on,” Brandon said. 

Still, while the bruises within the GOP will continue to smart long past November, whatever the outcome, TPP spokesman Kevin Broughton said the potential to control the Senate “trumps just about everything right now.”

“At this point it would be counterproductive to let hurt feelings stand in the way of flipping control of the Senate,” he said.

Establishment operatives insist grassroots voters have always understood how important it would be for them to turn out this cycle, and that the early primary fights were largely an invention of a handful of moneyed beltway groups looking to take advantage of voters’ fears to make a profit.

Brian Walsh, a former spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said it was misleading to look at those groups as initially representative of the grassroots.

“There are certain operatives that rely on this conflict to make money,” he said.

But he was confident the Republican grassroots had come home.

“In both parties there’s always going to be disagreements in primaries but once you get past that you recognize the stakes involved and the importance of the stakes in the fall.”