Tea Party’s final Senate hopes fade

Greg Nash

A dismal primary cycle for Tea Party Republicans will likely get more disappointing this week with uphill races in Kansas and Tennessee. 

On Tuesday, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) is the favorite to win his primary against radiologist Milton Wolf, though conservatives have certainly dinged the three-term incumbent. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) is a far more comfortable bet in his Tuesday contest. 

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Roberts was once seen as ripe for a primary challenge: He has a notably centrist voting record, having voted to raise the debt limit and to confirm Kathleen Sebelius as head of Health and Human Services. And reports that he no longer lives in the home he owns in Kansas, but instead rents a room from donors when he visits, have dogged him throughout the race.

Similar residency issues have contributed to primary losses before. And Roberts did himself no favors by making repeated gaffes on the issue, most recently admitting he returns home “whenever I get an opponent.”

But the race followed a trajectory similar to other GOP contests that have opened to much fanfare but fizzled at the finish line: Tea Party enthusiasts backed a flawed candidate, were outspent on the airwaves and outgunned on the ground. 

Even conservatives admit Wolf winning on Tuesday is a long shot. 

“It has been low key. Milton has not been destroyed, and he has been quietly surging. I think it's possible for him to win, [but] most likely will come up a little short,” said one Tea Party operative engaged in Senate races.

That sentiment is a 180-degree turn from the initial excitement over his challenge to Roberts.

Wolf, a second cousin to President Obama, was one of the first candidates endorsed by the Senate Conservatives Fund (SCF). An outspoken Tea Party activist, he’s no fan of his distant relative. Wolf received more than $500,000 in financial support from the SCF, bringing the total from outside groups helping him to around $650,000 on the race. Groups backing Roberts have kicked in around $400,000.

But local reports detailing posts Wolf made to Facebook of gruesome X-ray images, with off-color commentary, stalled his campaign earlier this year, and he hasn’t managed to recover.

Wolf wasn’t helped by news two weeks ago that he’s under investigation by a state ethics board for the images, a fact the Roberts campaign has used in attack ads over the past few weeks as evidence he’s “unfit for Kansas.”

That character indictment has been central to Roberts’s strategy in the race, and it’s one that’s worked for incumbents in previous primaries this cycle. In Kentucky, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) successfully portrayed his primary opponent as a serial liar; in Mississippi, Sen. Thad Cochran (R) suggested his primary challenger associated with shady characters.

Like those contests, the Kansas incumbent has used a considerable cash advantage to raise questions of viability on the airwaves. Wolf had less than $95,000 cash on hand as of July 16, while Roberts had $1.45 million cash, after spending almost double what Wolf did during the first two weeks of July.

Part of the problem has been that the national conservative groups who would typically engage heavily in primaries are essentially all primaried out, having spent financial and staff resources beyond what they expected on the Mississippi Republican primary runoff, the battle over which is still raging.

“We spent a ton of financial and human resources in Mississippi, and so got to these races about three weeks later than we expected to and with diminished coffers,” Kevin Broughton, spokesman for the Tea Party Patriots, told The Hill previously.

That spells trouble for another Tea Party-backed candidate, the last contender with a shot at taking down an incumbent senator, if Wolf loses.

Tennessee state Rep. Joe Carr has nabbed the endorsements of a handful of national conservative groups and voices in his primary challenge to Alexander, but still far fewer than Wolf. The Senate Conservatives Fund is still sitting the Volunteer State race out, and Carr is seen as an even longer shot than even Wolf.

If Wolf loses, as expected, it might be doubly difficult for conservatives to build the momentum they’d need to push Carr over the finish line in an even tougher race, past an even stronger incumbent.

But conservatives won’t be bowed. On Monday, they were already spinning the potential Wolf loss into a win.

“[The establishment has] been forced to adopt our issues,” said the Tea Party operative. “It has always been difficult to gain enough name ID and raise money to defeat an incumbent who lacks any personal scandals. That will never change. But we are winning on the issues.”

—This piece was corrected to reflect the fact that Roberts did not vote for the Senate immigration reform proposal.

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