The Tea Party faces an uncertain future after a rough night of primary losses on Tuesday.
In the Mississippi Senate runoff, the Oklahoma Senate primary and a handful of New York House districts, conservative challengers fell to establishment-branded candidates, sometimes in stunning fashion.
Their main jewel this cycle, Rep. Eric Cantor’s (R-Va.) primary foe Dave Brat, didn’t even receive the support of any national conservative groups as he toppled the House majority leader.
As they’re left to wonder what might have been at the primary season’s midpoint, Tea Party activists, operatives and lawmakers say their struggles are product of a movement in flux, facing growing pains as it transitions from a grassroots furor into a viable political entity capable of winning races and shaping policy.
The challenges they face are both systemic and philosophical: Can they find strong candidates and train them up? And can they operate under a centralized strategy to win?
Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), a Tea Party-aligned freshman, said candidate choice was an issue for conservatives this cycle.
“Fifty percent of it is on filing day,” he said when asked why conservatives have been struggling. In his home state, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) crushed his own conservative primary challenger, Matt Bevin, who was seen by most as flawed and inept on the trail.
Matt Schlapp, a former political director to George W. Bush and the newly elected chairman of the American Conservative Union, agreed, saying voters “could not get comfortable” with McDaniel, citing the multiple scandals that dogged his campaign.
“Incumbents have the advantage when these upstart candidates are seen as not ready for prime time. So this vote in Mississippi was not a repudiation of the Tea Party; it was a repudiation of a weak candidate,” he said.
Schlapp warned that the same dynamic was in play in Kansas, where Sen. Pat Roberts’s (R-Kan.) primary challenger, radiologist Milton Wolf, has stalled because Facebook posts he made in which he joked about his patients’ X-rays went public.
Conservative lawmakers had caveats as well. Many argued that the national conservative and Tea Party groups don’t reflect the conservative movement as a whole, and so their losses don’t mean anything about the viability of the Tea Party going forward.
But that is one of movement’s key problems: its lack of a centralized campaign apparatus or strategy.
Keith Appell, a GOP strategist who works with conservative candidates, saw McDaniel as a largely strong candidate but pointed to issues with his staff and wayward supporters, several of whom were arrested after allegedly breaking in to a nursing home to film his opponent’s wife for a political hit.
“No question, this is a golden opportunity blown. But it underscores how even a good candidate is not enough, he or she has to have a competent campaign,” said Appell.
He noted that the establishment has no shortage of moneyed and well-trained operatives to run aggressive campaigns, while the Tea Party is still getting its sea legs to some extent.
“You need to bring more than passion to the table. You have to bring a good candidate, a competent campaign, have good nuts and bolts people who know how to run campaigns,” Appell added.
But the movement’s lack of a centralized structure and clear strategy may be a systemic challenge it faces that is ultimately insurmountable.
Because individual freedom is a fundamental Tea Party value, the movement and its adherents purposely defy centralization. Multiple Tea Party-aligned lawmakers pushed back on the idea of there being a single, central movement or entity called “the Tea Party,” or even “conservatism.”
“Defining conservatism is like defining justice and fairness and beauty — it’s in the eye of the beholder,” said Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.).
That quality makes the movement difficult to organize, and a unifying strategy almost impossible. Many conservative lawmakers questioned whether the national conservative groups were even reflective of the Tea Party’s sentiments at this point.
Some believe, however, these losses will give their activists a needed dose of reality and encourage conservatives to start building the structural foundations they need to win.
Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), speaking to The Hill after the spate of Tea Party losses during the May 20 round of primaries — including McConnell’s easy defeat of his conservative challenger — said he has hope for the movement’s ability to adapt.
“Any movement starts out moved by deep principle and often times principle on fire will overcome practicality on ice,” he said.
“But the truth is, as the Tea Party, and those who really hold Tea Party principles, begins to mature in their political capability — they are like any other group, getting more effective in their tactics as they go. And they can do that without compromising their principles.”