Tea Party sees gains in Senate

Conservative activists say a victory by Richard Mourdock in the Indiana Republican primary Tuesday would be a significant step toward a Tea Party takeover of the Senate GOP agenda. 

Mourdock’s anticipated win over Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) would be a huge boost to the Tea Party movement, which earlier this year was said to be losing steam and viability.

Mourdock is one of a half-dozen Tea Party-allied candidates in Republican primaries who could change the balance of power among Senate Republicans. 

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Rep. Jeff Flake, who is favored to win the Arizona Senate Republican primary; Josh Mandel, the GOP nominee in Ohio; and Ted Cruz, who could be headed for a runoff election in Texas, are other conservatives who are in decent position to triumph in November.

They would give more influence to the conservative faction of the conference, which includes Sens. Jim DeMint (S.C.), Rand Paul (Ky.) and Mike Lee (Utah), founding members of the Senate Tea Party Caucus. 

DeMint’s Senate Conservatives Fund has endorsed Flake, Mandel and Cruz. 

“In the middle of a campaign season that’s been dominated by talk of [the] presidential race, there has been a group of independent conservative candidates that is gradually building momentum and gaining support,” said Matt Hoskins, spokesman for the Senate Conservatives Fund. “We could have another election with an injection of the new blood of Tea Party conservatives in the Senate.”

Erick Erickson, editor in chief of RedState.com, an influential conservative website, says if Tea Party Republicans don’t take over the Senate GOP conference, they will gain enough members to change the agenda.

“I don’t think they’ll have a majority of the conference, but they will have enough representation to give Mitch McConnell and the Democrats a serious headache,” he said in reference to Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.). 

A senior Republican aide suggested, however, that McConnell could be helped by an influx of Tea Party conservatives in the Senate. The aide said it would help put the Senate GOP agenda more in line with House Republicans’.

Over the last several months, Democrats have relished the Tea Party’s drop in the polls while privately rooting for far-right candidates to win GOP primaries.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), during a January appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” said, “I think the Tea Party’s dying out as the economy’s slowly getting better.” 

Over the last couple of cycles, Republican operatives have bemoaned the Tea Party. They say the GOP squandered winnable Senate seats in 2010 because of Tea Party candidates who fell short in Nevada, Delaware and Colorado. 

Some Tea Party senators have held off from endorsing Mourdock in his bid against Lugar, a respected member of the Senate GOP conference. However, Tea Party members and the Republican establishment are expected to quickly endorse Mourdock should he beat the 36-year incumbent.

Senate Democrats say a win by Mourdock would give them a chance to swipe the GOP-held seat, claiming that Rep. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) is a strong candidate. While President Obama carried Indiana in 2008, his prospects there now look bleak and Republicans feel confident they have a strong advantage in the state. 

Right-leaning groups such as FreedomWorks for America say their goal is to win a controlling share of the Senate GOP conference and insist that is within reach, pointing to Sen. Ron Johnson’s (R-Wis.) narrow loss to Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) in the race for Senate GOP conference vice chairman.

“It’s about getting a majority of the majority,” said Ryan Hecker, chief operating officer of FreedomWorks. “That’s been FreedomWorks’s goal from the beginning.

“Blunt beat Ron Johnson by just three votes. That tells me all you need is a strong core of conservatives and senators who have been in Washington a lot longer who will join forces with the conservative core,” he said.

Leading conservatives say they want a Senate Republican leadership more closely aligned with their views on spending. Earmarks remain an issue of contention within Republican circles even though the Senate GOP adopted a moratorium on the projects at the end of 2010. 

“Mitch McConnell didn’t go to the floor of the Senate to swear off earmarks because he wanted to but because he had to,” said Chris Chocola, president of the Club for Growth, which has spent hundreds of thousands to support Mourdock. “It would be well-served to have a leadership that wants to do things like that rather than are forced to do it.”

A poll by Magellan Strategies, a Republican firm, last week showed Flake ahead of Democratic candidate Richard Carmona by four points. 

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) leads Mandel by an average of 8.5 points in recent public polls, though Senate Republican strategists expect the race to tighten. Mandel has been helped by more than $5 million in ads funded by third-party groups such as Crossroads GPS and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce against Brown. 

In Texas, a Democratic poll last month showed Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, the GOP establishment candidate, drawing 38 percent of the primary vote against Cruz, who pulled 26 percent support. Political handicappers indicate the Dewhurst campaign is nervous about a potential runoff with Cruz, blasting him with hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of attack ads. 

Paul and his father, presidential candidate Ron Paul, attended a rally for Cruz at the Texas Capitol on Sunday organized by the Tea Party Express. 

The next tier of conservative Senate candidates includes Sarah Steelman in Missouri, Mark Neumann in Wisconsin and Don Stenberg in Nebraska. A Rasmussen poll from mid-April showed Steelman 7 points up on Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.).

Steelman is vying for the Republican nomination against Rep. Todd Akin and John Brunner.

“If Sarah Steelman wins that primary, she has the potential to shake up the Senate Republican leadership. She’s one tough cookie,” said a conservative strategist. 

Neumann has a tougher road to the Senate. He’s facing former Gov. Tommy Thompson, a center-right politician who has shown he can win statewide. 

Barry C. Burden, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, said Neumann has to contend with other conservative candidates who will likely split the Tea Party vote. 

“Thompson is the favorite and has been all along. He has a level of name recognition and familiarity and heavyweight status,” said Burden. “Neumann is in striking distance and has not yet made the move.”

Neumann also has the backing of the Senate Conservatives Fund.

Conservatives admire Stenberg’s record and feel confident he would hold fast to his conservative principles in Washington. But Stenberg has not had a good track record in Senate races, having lost three of them. 

A poll released by state Sen. Deb Fischer’s (R) campaign Monday showed Stenberg third in the primary race. The survey gave 30 percent for state Attorney General Jon Bruning, 26 percent for Fischer and 18 percent for Stenberg, with 24 percent of voters undecided.

The Senate Conservatives Fund has backed Stenberg and invested nearly $1 million in his race.