Republican Senate incumbents look to be largely free of tough primary challenges by Tea Party candidates that could complicate the party’s efforts to retain the uppwer chamber during the pivotal 2016 election.
The outside groups that have historically bolstered challenges have set sights on open seat races instead, and establishment leaders have encouraged incumbents to mount an early show of force to scare off potential primary foes and ensure the candidates reach key general election challenges unscathed.
“All of our incumbents have done phenomenal jobs being very aggressive, locking down key Republican and conservative leaders in their states,” said Andrea Bozek, the National Republican Senatorial Campaign’s (NRSC) communications director.
That’s a contrast to the 2014 cycle, when various Tea Partyers set their sights on challenging McConnell (Ky.), Sen. Pat RobertsPat RobertsThe buzzword everyone can agree on in the health debate: RESTORE A guide to the committees: Senate Angst in GOP over Trump's trade agenda MORE (Kan.) and Sen. Thad CochranThad CochranA guide to the committees: Senate Mulvaney sworn in as White House budget chief Senate confirms Mulvaney to be Trump’s budget chief MORE (Miss.).
Those races turned ugly fast. McConnell and primary opponent Matt Bevin repeatedly hurled insults at each other, while Chris McDaniel called for the state party to overturn Cochran’s primary victory and accused his campaign of illegally turning out Democratic voters.
“I think we are going to crush them everywhere,” McConnell told The New York Times in 2014 of Tea Party groups mounting challenges against incumbents then.
“I don’t think they are going to have a single nominee anywhere in the country.”
This cycle, where Democrats only have to win five seats to take outright control of the Senate, potential Tea Party challengers are finding little support from outside groups, focusing instead on open seat Senate races in Indiana and Florida.
“It’s just not a priority,” Taylor Budowich, the executive director of Tea Party Express, told The Hill, adding that he’s still open to backing a primary challenge but hasn't yet seen a "strong challenger."
“Just because they are challenging someone we don’t like doesn’t mean that we are going to funnel money to them.”
FreedomWorks President Adam Brandon added it takes a massive effort to unseat an incumbent and the Tea Party has been more successful in open primaries than in incumbent challenges.
Proof of that can be seen from the Tea Party movement’s successful 2014 Senate candidates— now Sens. Dan Sullivan (Alaska), Tom CottonTom CottonSanders: 'If you don't have the guts to face your constituents,' you shouldn't be in Congress Protesters crash McConnell's speech 7-year-old to Cotton: Don't let Trump cut PBS Kids just to fund a wall MORE (Ark.), Cory GardnerCory GardnerThe Hill's 12:30 Report Schumer: GOP plan to make Warren the face of Dems 'not going to work' A guide to the committees: Senate MORE (Colo.), Joni Ernst (Iowa), Steve Daines (S.D.) and Ben Sasse (Neb.) — none of whom challenged incumbents.
Activists say incumbent challenges don’t define the movement.
“If you are an activist in Wisconsin or Pennsylvania, you aren’t going to do better than Toomey and Johnson,” Brandon said of Sens. Pat Toomey (Pa.) and Ron JohnsonRon JohnsonA guide to the committees: Senate Hopes rise for law to expand access to experimental drugs Dems ask for hearings on Russian attempts to attack election infrastructure MORE (Wis.).
“I don’t think people are as interested in some of these pipe dreams.”
NRSC executive director Ward Baker met with the Senate incumbents facing reelection in 2016 soon after the 2014 elections, a GOP Senate aide told The Hill, where he emphasized kicking off an aggressive push to start the year. Many of those up for reelection first won their seats during 2010’s Tea Party wave and won endorsements of groups like the conservative Club for Growth.
The aide specifically noted Sen. Rob PortmanRob PortmanConquering Trump returns to conservative summit ObamaCare fix hinges on Medicaid clash in Senate A guide to the committees: Senate MORE as someone who took that to heart despite rumblings of a potential primary challenge in Ohio. He rolled out strong cash-on-hand numbers in January along with endorsements from the entire state Republican congressional delegation, all its statewide elected officials, and almost 90 percent of GOP state lawmakers.
Only one incumbent Republican senator faces a notable declared challenger at this point: Arizona Sen. John McCainJohn McCainDem rep Charlie Crist files for divorce Why the GOP cannot sweep its Milo scandal under the rug New York Knicks owner gave 0K to pro-Trump group MORE. Two major Tea Party congressmen, Reps. David SchweikertDavid SchweikertA guide to the committees: House A guide to the committees: Senate Lawmakers introduce the Blockchain Caucus MORE and Matt SalmonMatt SalmonWestern Republicans seek new federal appeals court Arts groups gear up for fight over NEA What gun groups want from Trump MORE, initially weighed taking him on amid polling that showed a potential vulnerability, but ultimately decided against it.
A source close to Salmon’s campaign said the NRSC reached out to remind him that the group only backs incumbents and it is committed to McCain. The source characterized that warning as polite, not vindictive.
McCain instead faces a challenge on his right from state Sen. Kelli Ward, who hasn’t seen an outpouring of support. She has so far raised about a half-million dollars for her bid, while McCain has almost $5 million in the bank.
“Kelli Ward is one of those candidates that we’ll observe,” Budowich said.
“But it’s not just about being right on the issues, it’s about being able to put together a strong campaign infrastructure, a campaign that can withstand the long haul against a former Republican presidential nominee.”
Last week also brought news of a group of conservative activists and state lawmakers looking at a primary challenge against Sen. Kelly AyotteKelly AyotteLewandowski saw no evidence of voter fraud in New Hampshire NH governor 'not aware’ of major voter fraud Former NH AG: 'Allegations of voter fraud in NH are baseless' MORE, who is locked in a tight race in New Hampshire against Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan.
Former state House Speaker Bill O’Brien, who is helping to lead those discussions and hasn’t ruled out a bid himself, said he believes Ayotte is doomed in the general election because she hasn’t stuck to her conservative chops.
But he added that neither the NRSC nor Ayotte allies have tried to ward off the threat.
Alabama’s Sen. Richard Shelby has attracted several primary challengers, including Jonathan McConnell, an Iraq War veteran and son of a former state GOP chairman.
Some national Tea Party advocates are intrigued by the idea of fresh blood — Shelby has served in Congress since 1979 — but are unfamiliar with McConnell, who declared on Friday. Plus, Shelby’s $19 million war chest looms large.
Both Budowich and Brandon said they think their money can go further in open seat races.
Rep. Ron DeSantis (Fla.) has been endorsed by Tea Party Express in a crowded primary for the seat Marco RubioMarco RubioAt CPAC, Trump lashes out at media Conquering Trump returns to conservative summit Rubio brushes off demonstrator asking about town halls MORE is vacating, while the Senate Conservatives Fund has endorsed Rep. Marlin Stutzman (Ind.) in his own open-seat bid.
Another conservative challenge is brewing in Nevada, an open seat where much of the party establishment has coalesced around Rep. Joe Heck to replace retiring Senate Minority Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidThe Hill's 12:30 Report Hopes rise for law to expand access to experimental drugs If Gorsuch pick leads to 'crisis,' Dems should look in mirror first MORE (D). Sharron Angle, Reid’s 2010 opponent who was endorsed in that cycle by the Tea Party Express, has floated a bid.
But Budowich described the race as a “wait and see,” noting that the group supported Heck’s House bid in 2010.
Brandon said he doesn’t want to spread FreedomWorks too thin, adding many House Freedom Caucus members have difficult races this year.
Ultimately, all parties underscore the major goal of 2016: GOP control of Congress and the White House.
“Voters are well aware of the stakes of this presidential election year,” the NRSC’s Bozek said.
“They want to give Republicans a working legislative branch to work with so they can get a lot accomplished, and a big party of that is keeping the Senate majority.”