Tea Party trio of 2010 faces hard path in 2014

Several Tea Party-backed GOP candidates who lost Senate races in the recent past are contemplating comebacks this fall. But, this time around, they could face even steeper climbs than they did in their initial quests.

Ken Buck has said he is ready to try again to win a Senate seat in Colorado. Christine O'Donnell and Joe Miller are also considering bids in Delaware and Alaska.

Back in 2010, Buck and O’Donnell fell to Democrats Michael Bennet and Chris Coons, respectively. Miller vanquished sitting Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the primary that same year, only for her to take revenge by winning the general election as a write-in candidate.

Earlier in the 2010 cycle, many in the GOP thought the seats in Colorado and Delaware could be wrested from Democratic hands — and that Miller’s toppling of Murkowski in the primary was an unwelcome distraction.

So the suggestion that the trio might return to the fray brings back bad memories for some in Republican ranks.

ADVERTISEMENT

As party insiders tell it, weak candidates claimed GOP nominations in 2010 largely because of their ability to marshal Tea Party support. In so doing, they dispatched candidates who would have been stronger in the general election to oblivion.

More recently, establishment Republicans have pledged to engage heavily in this cycle's primaries to ensure the nomination of candidates whom they see as more electable.

Overall, the GOP appears poised for a strong year in 2014, thanks in part to its recruitment.

The party needs to win six seats to take control of the Senate. Strategists feel they are in a good position to win three open seats and to defeat three other Democratic incumbents.

Key decision-makers at the national level are not yet seriously pursuing victory in Colorado or Delaware. The acknowledge that Democratic Sens. Mark Udall and Coons are both polling well, and feel that the GOP’s best opportunities lie elsewhere.

But Miller could give them a headache in Alaska, a top pick-up opportunity. There, the party has its preferred candidate in Mead Treadwell, the state’s current lieutenant governor. But Miller is moving ahead with preparations for a run regardless — even though he has not yet officially announced.

The potential rematches arise in part because Tea Partiers believe there is a favorable national climate for their arguments, which focus largely upon limited government and fiscal responsibility. They take issue with those who believe the movement has passed the apex of its influence.

"I think there's a much more positive atmosphere for liberty-minded candidates right now than even in 2010," Miller told The Hill.

He said he expects the public backlash over National Security Agency surveillance programs, as well as expected problems with the rollout of ObamaCare, to fuel a grassroots fervor.

But GOP pollster Brock McCleary, a former National Republican Congressional Committee deputy political director, said that there is little indication the multiple "sparks" of discontent are going to ignite a fire similar to the one which, in 2010, scorched Congress and reconfigured the makeup of both chambers.

"There are a number of sort of small sparks that could light a wave one way or another," he said.

"I think that while ObamaCare does offer a little bit of a chance for some momentum for Republicans in a midterm, I just can’t imagine a shift where there is a magnitude of change similar to 2010," he added.

In fact, the growing anti-establishment sentiment may ultimately work against these second-time candidates. A candidate can only frame him or herself as independent of the political system so many times. Running again for the same seat risks earning the title of perpetual candidate — and a crystallization of the perception that the contender is as much a part of the system as those he or she is trying to oust.

Daniel Horowitz, policy director for the Madison Project, a group that backs Tea Party candidates in primaries, signaled a reluctance to revisit any second-time candidates.

"We're trying to think out of the box. We're trying to come up and recruit totally fresh new candidates," he told The Hill.

Referring to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, he said that "many of their candidates are has-beens and retreads," a characterization that might well gain traction with voters disenchanted with Congress and the political system as a whole.

But it is a characterization that could easily be made fit Miller, Buck and O'Donnell in a primary, too.

In addition to no longer being the freshest of faces, each member of the trio suffered a series of campaign-crippling missteps in their 2010 runs. They would now have to convince potential supporters that they have learned from their mistakes.

Damaging details about Miller's receipt of government aid emerged, and the candidate at one point flatly declined to answer questions about his past. He also drew negative press when a reporter was handcuffed and removed from a public forum after trying to speak with him.

O'Donnell, too, faced controversy after details about her youthful experimentation with witchcraft emerged. In response, she recorded a now-infamous ad in which she reassured voters, "I am not a witch."

Buck issued a number of controversial statements during his 2010 campaign that ultimately helped sink his candidacy, most notably his insistence that voters should back him because "I do not wear high heels" — a reference to his female primary opponent.

"If you can't win in 2010 it has to put doubt in people's minds about their ability to win this cycle," McCleary said.

A number of Tea Party groups signaled a reluctance to support any of the three in their potential races. Matt Hoskins, of the Senate Conservatives Fund, told The Hill that the group will be reevaluating the candidates again, despite endorsing all three of them in their previous bids.

"These are new races so our past endorsements won't carry forward," he said.

Miller, however, said he was not concerned about losing any of those endorsements. True to Tea Party form, he said he is running with grassroots support and does not need the backing of any national groups to succeed. 

"This candidacy is not contingent upon or waiting with bated breath for any type of endorsement," he said.

More in Technology

Path to Senate runs through Silicon Valley

Read more »