The Tea Party’s much-hyped war on GOP Senate incumbents is officially a bust.
With Sen. Lamar AlexanderLamar AlexanderGOP's ObamaCare talking points leave many questions unanswered Overnight Regulation: Trump's new Labor pick | Trump undoes Obama coal mining rule Trump unveils new pick to head Labor Department MORE’s (R-Tenn.) victory on Thursday night, conservative groups have failed to net a single incumbent scalp this cycle. No other GOP incumbents face major primary challenges this year.
Tea Party groups boasted early on that they would take down aging centrists Thad CochranThad CochranMulvaney sworn in as White House budget chief Senate confirms Mulvaney to be Trump’s budget chief McCain announces opposition to Trump's pick for budget chief MORE (Miss.) and Pat Roberts (Kan.). Alexander and Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamThe Hill's 12:30 Report McConnell: I’m very sympathetic to 'Dreamers' GOP senators unnerved by Trump-Russia relationship MORE (S.C.) were targets, as was Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellGOP Congress unnerved by Trump bumps Top Dem: GOP is terrified of Trump Senate confirms Pruitt to lead EPA MORE (Ky.).
And remember when Sen. Mike EnziMike EnziGOP senators unveil bill to give Congress control of consumer bureau budget Grizzlies, guns, and games of gotcha: How the left whiffed on Betsy DeVos Live coverage: Trump budget chief faces two Senate panels MORE (Wyo.) was going to lose to Liz Cheney?
Here’s a refresher on how the GOP establishment beat back the challenges:
- WYOMING: Cheney, the daughter of former Vice President Cheney, moved back to her home state to launch an ill-fated bid against Enzi, attacking the veteran senator on his positions and age. She never seemed to gain much steam, was never fully embraced by Tea Party groups and ended her bid in early January, citing family concerns. Enzi is expected to cruise to victory later this month.
- TEXAS (March 4): Conservatives may have wanted to take out Senate Majority Whip John CornynJohn CornynComey meets Intel senators amid uproar over Trump-Russia ties Corker: Senate GOP discussing best path for Russia probe Senate GOP leaders urge WH to withdraw Puzder nomination: report MORE, but quixotic Rep. Steve Stockman certainly wasn’t the one to do it. He didn’t get backing from national groups and floundered.
- KENTUCKY (May 20): McConnell was supposed to be the Tea Party’s biggest scalp. Even though the Senate Conservatives Fund and others spent millions backing businessman Matt Bevin, McConnell crushed him by 25 points.
- SOUTH CAROLINA (June 10): Tea Party groups were never able to settle on a challenger to Graham, another immigration reform backer and bipartisan actor. Graham didn’t even need a runoff to finish off his foes.
- MISSISSIPPI (June 24 runoff): Thad Cochran looked like a goner after being forced into a runoff against state Sen. Chris McDaniel, who got the most support from outside groups this cycle. But the incumbent pulled off the upset three weeks later, though he’s still claiming fraud and trying to challenge the results.
- KANSAS (Aug. 5): Radiologist Milton Wolf had baggage and skeletons that hampered his campaign. He might have been a contender, given Roberts’s miscues on how much time he really spent in the state. Roberts’s margin wasn’t huge on Tuesday, but he still won.
- TENNESSEE (Aug. 7): Alexander’s 9-point margin over Carr was a bit surprising, especially since he did it with virtually no outside help. The veteran will head back to the Senate touting his bipartisan credentials the whole way.
Tea Party groups are shrugging off their flops, saying they succeeded in forcing several members to move to the right.
“Some people worry about our batting average. George Washington lost more battles than he won, but he won the war,” Senate Conservatives Fund President Ken Cuccinelli said Friday morning at the RedState gathering in Texas.
“There's a ripple effect to everything that we do and you can see it in the change of voting behavior from members of Congress,” said Club for Growth spokesman Barney Keller. “[Former Utah Sen. Bob] Bennet loses and [Utah Sen. Orrin] Hatch starts voting like Jim DeMint.”
“This is all about policy and I think it's pretty clear we're impacting it in a pro-growth direction regardless of each individual election outcome,” said Keller.
Others shrugged off the losses, pointing to successes in open seat races, like Ben Sasse in Nebraska.
“There's no evidence conservative policy can't win a primary and even the worst Tea Party candidates are running pretty strong campaigns,” said one Tea Party-aligned strategist. “The scary thing is what happens if a Ben Sasse or someone runs against a Thad Cochran? Everyone knows who wins that race. If even a Chris McDaniel can get more votes in a Republican primary than Thad Cochran then the movement is alive and well.”
Detractors point out that the Senate Conservatives Fund, the loudest instigator in the establishment versus Tea Party fight, gleefully spent its money attacking Republicans in primaries instead of helping in competitive races to knock off Democrats. According to calculations, the SCF invested just over $5 million on losing campaigns. When salaries and other overhead is added in, that rises above $13 million, or about 84 percent of its total operating budget.
“The good news is that Republicans avoided another Christine O'Donnell scenario and have a great field of candidates heading into the fall,” said GOP strategist Brian Walsh, a former National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman and frequent critic of the SCF and other Tea Party groups.
“The unfortunate news is that D.C. conservative groups wasted millions of dollars attacking good Republicans that now aren't available to help retire Harry Reid as majority leader. Hopefully their donors will take note of that for the future and we can all work together next cycle to hold the Democrats accountable."