Tea Party takes hit in primary test

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The GOP establishment notched big wins on Tuesday night’s unofficial primary season launch, dealing an early blow to Tea Party hopes. 

But more than signaling a change in direction of the party, the establishment’s willingness to finally engage in contests shows Republicans are more serious and energized than ever to finally take back a prize that’s eluded them for two cycles: Senate control. 

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North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis’s outright win in the Tar Heel State’s GOP Senate primary was their best news of the night. By beating back Tea Party challengers and avoiding a costly runoff, national Republicans got their top choice to take on vulnerable Democrat Sen. Kay Hagan. 

Tillis had plenty of help in besting physician Greg Brannon, who had the backing of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), FreedomWorks, and minister Mark Harris, who was endorsed by former Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-Ark.). The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and American Crossroads combined to spend nearly $2.5 million on ads boosting Tillis and deluging the airwaves. 

After seeing their hopes of winning the Senate collapse the past two cycles thanks to flawed, unelectable candidates, those center-right GOP groups signaled early on they weren’t going to sit idly by any longer. 

Tillis’s victory doesn’t just save millions in July runoff costs by allowing him to focus his fire solely on Hagan early, but it’s an important moral victory for the GOP establishment, too. 

But the wins didn’t end there, even if they were mostly symbolic ones. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) easily pushed back a Tea Party challenge, though he did dip into his deep war chest to air TV ads for the first time since 2010. Freshman Rep. David Joyce (R-Ohio) also won his primary despite spending from FreedomWorks and Tea Party Patriots against him. A loss by the centrist Joyce could have been perilous for the GOP in the swing district, a top Democratic target this fall. 

In the Tar Heel state’s House primaries, establishment favorites were also mostly successful. Rep. Renee Ellmers (N.C.), a GOP leadership favorite who supports immigration reform, was named to the Club for Growth’s “Primary my Congressman” list, but she won renomination. 

The North Carolina and Ohio wins were just the first round of a nearly two month long test for the national GOP. And right now, it looks like the Tea Party will continue to fizzle in the most-watched races. 

Next week’s Nebraska Senate primary could be one of their lone victories. In the open-seat contest, Midland University President Ben Sasse has endorsements from the Senate Conservatives Fund, the Club for Growth and others. FreedomWorks even flipped to his camp after previously backing former state Treasurer Shane Osborn, claiming his campaign was too close to GOP Senate Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.). Osborn has fired back, citing his local and state Tea Party support, but it’s Sasse who’s seen his numbers on the rise in the race’s final days. 

In two weeks, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was supposed to be their top scalp, but he looks set to easily cruise by his primary challenge from businessman Matt Bevin. 

Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), an ally of Speaker John Boehner, was another early target after conservative outside groups, including the Club for Growth, backed his primary challenger, attorney Bryan Smith. But with help from the Chamber and other pro-business groups, it looks like Simpson will likely win his May 20 primary. 

The open Georgia Senate race that same day gives Tea Party groups another chance, but in the muddled, crowded primary even candidates with some Tea Party support, like former Secretary of State Karen Handel, wouldn’t be seen as a bad candidate by the establishment. Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) has the Chamber’s backing though, and if he can advance to the runoff it would be another victory for the group. 

On May 27, 90-year-old Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas) could well lose his runoff to self-funding former U.S. Attorney John Ratcliffe, who has the backing of the Club for Growth, the Senate Conservatives Fund and the Madison Project. But Ratcliffe has also made Hall’s age and the need for a fresh face a main point of his message. 

The Mississippi Senate primary on June 3 might be the Tea Party’s best chance to knock off a GOP Senate incumbent, but beating Sen. Thad Cochran (R) won’t be as easy as it once hoped. He’s also had help from the Chamber of Commerce, plus McDaniel has been put on the defensive by having to explain past controversial comments he made on his radio show.

The Iowa Senate primary that same day is a rare example of the establishment and Tea Party groups being on the same page. State Sen. Joni Ernst has the momentum in the race, and she has the backing not only from former Gov. Mitt Romney (R-Mass.) but also from the Senate Conservatives Fund and former Gov. Sarah Palin (R-Alaska.) 

On June 10, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) should be one of the most vulnerable incumbents to a primary, given the outspoken senator’s pro-immigration positions and willingness to criticize his own party. But with Tea Party support split across his multiple challengers, he could also top the 50 percent he needs to avoid a runoff two weeks later.