By Cameron Joseph - 05/18/12 10:00 AM EDT
Conservative groups — including the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks and Sen. Jim DeMint’s (R-S.C.) Senate Conservatives Fund — are pivoting toward Texas’s Senate race after their embarrassing defeat in Nebraska’s Senate primary.
The Tea Party-linked groups were riding high after helping to beat Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) in his primary 10 days ago. But they hit a low this week when their preferred candidate in Nebraska’s Senate primary finished a distant third after they combined to spend $2.5 million on the race.
“It’s very important,” said Brendan Steinhauser, the state campaigns director for FreedomWorks. “We’re putting a lot of energy there.”
Texas, Utah, Arizona and Wisconsin remain the big Senate races that at least some of the groups are targeting; all three of them are involved in Texas.
The groups will receive a lot of credit if they can help former Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz (R) make the runoff election against Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (R) — but if Dewhurst wins the primary on the first round with 50 percent of the vote, Washington Republicans will take the groups less seriously.
“There’s a lot for them to play for within the party in these next couple of races,” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “Their sole goal is to hold Republicans’ feet to the fire, and if they can’t do that in these races, they have a problem.”
The groups have made Texas a leading priority. The day after it helped defeat Lugar, the Club for Growth put out a memo saying its next goal was to help Cruz, an implicit early acknowledgment that it was in trouble in Nebraska as well as an emphasis that it thought Cruz could force a runoff election.
Dewhurst has the clear edge in the race right now, and he and his allies have spent nearly $10 million already. Cruz has struggled to keep up financially, but the Club has come to his aid in a big way, spending nearly $1.5 million on the race, and the group is on pace to cross the $2 million threshold well before Election Day. DeMint’s group has chipped in by spending $1 million on Cruz’s behalf.
While two polls released by Dewhurst and his allies say he’s above the 50 percent threshold, most say he’s below that mark and the race is likely headed for a July runoff. The groups say that at that point it becomes a different campaign, with Cruz able to draw a direct contrast with the establishment pick and a low-turnout, mid-summer primary likely aiding Cruz because it would likely draw more-partisan voters.
Club spokesman Barney Keller said the group regularly picks the underdog and that its win-loss record was less important than how its pressure affected members’ voting patterns.
“Ignore us at your own peril,” he said. “Win or lose, the effect of the Club for Growth PAC can be found in the change of behavior in our elected representatives … We want to win, but when [former Sen. Bob] Bennett loses in Utah and [Utah Sen. Orrin] Hatch starts voting to the right of Jim DeMint, that’s a positive externality of our efforts.”
The Club also has a long track record in these races and is more careful about picking strong candidates than some of the other groups, which are more vulnerable to being ignored. FreedomWorks endorsed three candidates on Wednesday alone, many of them underdogs.
DeMint, who was not directly involved in defeating Lugar, took a lot of heat for what happened in Nebraska — Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) told reporters that his and the other groups had hurt the preferred candidate.
DeMint told The New York Times on Wednesday that he was “very happy with the results” in Nebraska because the establishment candidate had been defeated, a sentiment echoed by the Club. But the primary’s winner, Nebraska state Sen. Deb Fischer (R), has a more centrist record that includes votes for some tax increases that are anathema to the groups.
The senator also stressed that he regularly backed outsider candidates who have an uphill climb. “If we end up batting .500 at the end of the year, we’ve had a good year,” he said.
But the groups need a few more wins to increase their prominence — and Texas might be their best remaining chance this year.