Tea Party faces 2014 challenge

Anne Wernikoff

The Tea Party is facing a huge test in 2014 as establishment Republicans and business groups try to wrestle back control of the GOP.

Grassroots conservative groups have ruled the roost of the House GOP conference since Republicans won back the majority in 2010 but are now under attack from forces within their own party.

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In December, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) repeatedly ripped into outside conservative groups over their tactics during the government shutdown fight, which he described as “ridiculous.”

Allies of Boehner, who has repeatedly struggled to lead his conference while outside groups and conservative senators vied with him for influence, feel optimistic they’ve emerged stronger from the last year.

“We are ending the year in much better position than we began it,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who works closely with Boehner.

“We ended it with a budget agreement; we ended it with a defense bill; we ended it with a farm bill in sight; we ended it with our appropriators doing what they are supposed to do,” Cole said.

The leverage point for Tea Party groups has been the GOP primaries, where they have repeatedly knocked off establishment candidates and incumbents that they view as straying too far from conservative principals.

Many Republicans think the Tea Party’s efforts contributed to their failure to win the Senate majority in 2010 and 2012, and are urging a united front this time around.

Cole said Republicans need to focus on winning a Senate majority rather than fighting over who is and isn’t a real conservative.

“Republicans are united in opposition to ObamaCare. They are united on the tax issue; they are strong on wanting to achieve the goals. We just simply don't have enough Republicans,” he said. “Our problem isn't simply passing exactly what these groups want through the House. It's passing it through the Senate.”

Boehner’s criticism of the outside groups has raised worries among conservatives that the Speaker might defy Tea Party forces by seeking to move immigration reform legislation, though Boehner has given no indication that is his plan.

His words have also emboldened allies in the business community and on K Street, who have been annoyed with the grassroots groups for making it more difficult to get things done in Washington.

Those groups are now funding business-friendly candidates and incumbents in GOP primaries, hoping the result will be a more pragmatic House GOP conference in 2015.

“The empire is striking back with the Chamber of Commerce and American Crossroads supporting more pragmatic Republicans in primaries,” Claremont McKenna College political science professor Jack Pitney said.

Pitney noted that the winners of the respective intraparty fights would likely set the course for the future direction of the GOP. 

Tea Party groups were annoyed with Boehner’s comments, but they haven’t indicated their tactics will change in terms of primary fights.

The Club for Growth, the Senate Conservatives Fund and the Madison Project have all endorsed primary challengers seeking to unseat entrenched Senate GOP incumbents.

Veteran legislators including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sens. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) are the targets of the groups, which hope to elect more lawmakers in the mold of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).

“It's a free country. Anybody is open to engage in the Democratic process, and we're just going to continue to do what we've always done which is try and promote champions of economic freedom through our [political action committee],” Club For Growth spokesman Barney Keller said.

Many of the conservative groups opposed the two-year budget deal backed by House GOP leaders (but opposed by McConnell) and warn more deal making in that vein would depress GOP turnout in the midterms.

“If [House GOP leaders] continue going down this path and cutting bipartisan deals and cutting out conservatives in the House and conservative groups and most importantly their conservative constituents, then they are going to have a demoralized base going into next year's election,” Heritage Action spokesman Dan Holler said in an interview with The Hill.

An early test for the Tea Party will be the omnibus spending bill that is being prepared for quick House and Senate votes in January. If Congress doesn’t ratify the measure, the government will shut down.

Conservative groups have not staked out positions on the bill, which is still being written, but they are likely to balk at the more than $1 trillion in government spending it will contain.