Conservative groups struggling to recruit candidates in key 2014 races

Despite pledging to wage fights against establishment Republicans deemed guilty of ideological impurity, conservatives have had a rocky cycle so far, failing to front candidates in a number of top races. 

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But a number of conservative groups insist that for them, the cycle is just beginning, and warn that a grassroots storm is brewing.

In South Dakota, conservatives blasted the GOP establishment pick, former Gov. Mike Rounds (R), on day one of his candidacy. 

Tea Party darling Rep. Kristi Noem (R-S.D.) chose not to run, and conservatives insist privately they weren't pleased with her legislative record, citing her lifetime score of 62 percent on the Club for Growth scorecard.

But without her in the race, it’s unclear if a conservative candidate will emerge with the name recognition and fundraising ability to launch a credible challenge.

Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) also received sharp criticism from both the Senate Conservatives Fund (SCF) and the Club for Growth when she announced her intentions to run for Senate in West Virginia late last year. 

Thus far, however, only former state Rep. Pat McGeehan (R) has emerged as an alternative — and neither conservative group has endorsed him yet.

In Louisiana, Tea Party stalwart Jeff Landry, a former congressman, decided against challenging Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) for the Republican Senate nomination, despite some grumbling within the state about his conservative credentials.

SCF did alert its members to the candidacy of Air Force veteran Rob Maness, but it hasn’t yet made an endorsement, as it continues to vet the candidates.

And in Iowa, Rep. Steve King (R), a Club for Growth favorite, opted out of a Senate race, leaving Republicans with a wide open field but no clear frontrunner, and no clear conservative option.

Democratic candidate Rep. Bruce Braley has called one candidate, conservative radio host Sam Clovis, "the next Steve King," but it's unclear whether Clovis can pull the donors and support he'll need to be competitive in a primary.

Some Republican incumbents thought to be vulnerable to conservative challengers have thus far emerged unscathed. 

Though Tea Party activists in Kentucky insisted earlier this year that they’d have a candidate by June, no one has yet launched a primary challenge against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R).

And Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a top target for conservatives looks safer after two conservative congressmen — Reps. Joe Wilson and Mick Mulvaney — ruled out a run.

Aides to a number of groups that typically back conservatives in races agree that the cycle is getting off to a later start than 2012.

“There is a sliver of truth ... in the sense that, maybe compared to other cycles, the conservative candidates have not come on line as quickly,” said Matt Hoskins, executive director of the Senate Conservatives Fund.

They says that the movement suffered after enduring setbacks in the last cycle.

Conservatives are disillusioned by candidates they once supported who seem to abandon their campaign promises once elected. They’re discouraged by the process, wary of engaging with a party establishment that seems intent on minimizing their impact on races.

And, like the rest of the GOP, they’re disappointed with the outcome of the 2012 elections, when a candidate they considered “Republican lite” — Mitt Romney — botched a winnable presidential race and Republicans actually lost seats in the Senate and House.

The loss of seats in Congress, some Republicans have said, happened precisely because conservatives have an outsize impact on nominating contests, citing Republican Todd Akin’s fumble of an easy Senate pickup in Missouri as evidence.

GOP establishment actors have pledged not to miss another series of opportunities this cycle as they tackle a favorable map filled with Democratic incumbents facing tough reelection fights in red states.

The face of the establishment, Karl Rove, created a super-PAC to ensure the most electable conservatives make it through primaries. 

Jonathan Collegio, an adviser to the group, said that renewed emphasis has “blind[ed] all but the most experienced and talented candidates.”

“We have seen a dramatically increased focus on GOP candidate quality in 2014 that had gone missing in previous cycles. Senate races have bright spotlights that blind all but the most experienced and talented candidates. The spate of losses in 2010 and 2012 reminded folks that the conservatives we elect in Senate primaries need to be excellent, experienced candidates if we want to win in 2014,” he said in an email to The Hill.

The Rove group, Conservative Victory Project, hasn’t yet engaged in any races — in part because it hasn’t yet had to.

But Hoskins maintains “there is a conservative storm developing right now.”

Matt Nye, chairman of the National Republican Liberty Caucus and a Tea Party organizer in Florida, agreed that there seems to be a lack of energy among the grassroots — but he sees the tide changing in the coming months.

“On the one hand, yes, there's disillusionment. On the other hand, the things that are happening in the Obama administration, all these things that are coming out are so egregious, that I’m seeing, at least in my area, a huge uptick in activity,” he said.

Nye cited the numerous scandals coming out of Washington and Obama’s new climate agenda as issues beginning to reinvigorate the grassroots. He said in recent weeks, attendance to his local Tea Party meetings had begun to return to normal.

Barney Keller, spokesman for the Club for Growth, noted the Club assess races with a hierarchy in mind — first priority is open, safe, Republican seats, then safe Republican-held seats, then more competitive swing seats — to maximize the group's return on investment.

The Club is meeting with candidates, but that assessment, he said, takes time.

"We don't see any rush to get involved in any of those races. We go through an exhaustive due diligence process before our PAC makes an endorsement," he said.

He suggested, however, in the "near-to-distant future," there may be developments in the conservative movement with an eye on 2014.

Some in the grassroots note that there’s a benefit to starting late.

Hoskins said that conservative candidates, because they often drum up such enthusiastic support among the grassroots, can enter the race later and remain competitive.

“Our ability to win is different from the establishment. We don't have to start at day one, we can have somebody pop up at the last minute and take off like a rocket if the environment is right,” he said.

David Adams, a Kentucky Tea Party activist, said the movement is “flourishing in the dark” in Kentucky while McConnell remains on offense against Democrats.

“We never would have anticipated that the waiting and the kind of, going dark, would be as productive as it has been,” he said. “I can’t tell you how much fun it is watching this unfold.”

He said to “stay tuned” on Kentucky. Any primary challenger will have to answer to McConnell’s considerable war chest, however, and a late start at fundraising and establishing an operation could hobble even the most credible of candidates.

But conservatives may yet have their day in a number of these races.

Nye’s group made its first endorsement of the cycle for McGeehan, who acknowledged that there seemed to be some apathy among conservatives in the 2012 elections and beyond.

“Oftentimes you'll see conservatives stay home because they don’t really feel like they have a choice when they're forced to choose between the lesser of two evils,” he said.

He added, however, that this cycle he expects the grassroots to be energized “because of this administration’s hostility to the Constitution.”

Arkansas Rep. Tom Cotton (R), the preferred candidate of both the establishment and the grassroots, is thought to be leaning towards a run, and Nye said he’s optimistic about finding a strong challenger for Graham, citing the large number of conservatives interested in the race who haven’t yet announced.

Conservatives say the next two months are imperative.

“When you’re getting to the end of August, I think, you’re starting too late,” Nye said.

He said that while he wasn’t worried yet, he hadn’t noticed the national trend until a reporter highlighted it — and that the series of recruiting troubles did in fact give him pause.

“I certainly hope that this isn't all there is,” he said.