2016 rivals say they can ride the wave

Greg Nash

Tea Party-backed senators eyeing White House bids in 2016 are encouraged by the victory of an underfunded challenger to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.), a grandee of the GOP establishment.

Their glee comes as mainstream Republicans are wringing their hands about what the historic upset means for the future of their party, fretting that it could signal a larger Tea Party uprising.

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Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) argued David Brat’s 11-point win showed that conservative principles can triumph over fundraising might and special-interest backing.

Cruz declared the surprise development demonstrates “the conservative base is alive and well.” 

Rubio praised Brat as “very impressive” and noted the similarities between their views. 

Paul pointed to the role played by “liberty” voters who are leery about government surveillance.

Each of the three rising conservative stars are hoping to mobilize voters around Tea Party principles if they run for president in 2016. And they are betting they can overcome the fundraising advantage that potential establishment-backed rivals, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush or Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, are likely to enjoy.

“The results of last night’s election in Virginia are reverberating all through the nation’s Capitol,” Cruz said in a statement. “Washington needs to listen to the people, stop spending money we don’t have and stand up and defend the Constitution.”

Centrist Republicans on Wednesday voiced concern that Cantor’s loss would empower Cruz and Paul, in particular.

“I’m concerned that, for instance, the Ted Cruz supporters, the Paul supporters are going to use this as an excuse to basically stop the government from functioning. I mean, thank God there is no debt-ceiling vote coming up,” Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.) said on MSNBC.

“Thank God there’s not an opportunity to shut the government down over the next several months.”

Cruz, Paul and Rubio last year opposed funding the government if doing so would allow the implementation of ObamaCare to go forward.

“Do I think that’s going to cause some fear among those vying for the Republican nomination in 2016? Absolutely,” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist who worked on Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) 2008 presidential campaign.

In a press conference, Cantor downplayed speculation that his race held a broad lesson for the Republican Party.

“All politics is local,” he told reporters.

But it certainly wasn’t that way to his primary challenger: Brat pummeled Cantor during the campaign by accusing him of supporting amnesty for illegal immigrants.

Rubio, who’s taken heat from conservatives for his own support for immigration reform, downplayed his differences with Brat on that issue and instead emphasized their shared conservative principles.

“On a number of other issues — the majority of his platform that I heard last night had to do with empowering free enterprise, helping Americans achieve equality of opportunity, the sorts of things I think the conservative movement needs to be about,” Rubio said.

Paul emphasized that he and Brat both oppose the National Security Agency’s surveillance program.

“There are a lot of liberty people in that district who aren’t too happy with the NSA. That hadn’t been reported much,” he said. “My understanding is that [Brat] is against some of the NSA surveillance state. A lot of little things add up.” 

In a conference call hosted by Americans for Tax Reform, Paul argued that a large campaign war chest can sometimes give a candidate a false sense of security.

“Some people, myself included, think that you can go too far negative, and apparently millions of dollars of negative ads [were] run and may well have increased the name identification of a lesser-known candidate,” he said.

Cantor raised about $5.5 million for his reelection race and collected contributions from more than 300 political action committees representing an array of corporations and special interests.

Brat spent only $200,000 and had just two paid staffers. Cantor spent nearly that amount — $168,000 — on political events at steakhouses.

The trio of conservative senators will likely face similar cash disadvantages if they run in 2016 against Bush or another scion of the Republican establishment able to tap a vast array of deep-pocketed donors.

Walker, a likely candidate if he wins his reelection bid, is close to the Koch brothers, two of the most powerful donors in GOP politics.

“Cantor’s loss makes it a lot harder for Republicans to run to the middle in any primary,” said John Ullyot, a former Senate aide and Republican strategist. “The more centrist candidates like Jeb Bush and Chris Christie and others in the middle will have real second thoughts about whether they are able to pull off a win in the primary with these kinds of sentiments.”

Appearing on Glenn Beck’s radio program Wednesday, Cruz argued that conservatives can defeat the GOP establishment by running strong grassroots campaigns.

“The biggest thing we can do is rise up and demand that our elected officials in both parties listen to the people, and that we hold every elected official accountable,” he told Beck.

Ullyot said Cantor’s defeat bodes especially well for Cruz.

“Ted Cruz is the one who has the most support from Tea Partyers because he is seen as the most pure on their issues,” he said.

Meanwhile, Rubio defended his support for immigration reform when asked about Cantor’s defeat.

“Look, we have a broken immigration system as evidenced by the latest crisis on the border,” he said.

Paul is also seen vulnerable on the issue because he has expressed willingness to act on a comprehensive bill.

He told students at Harvard’s Institute of Politics earlier this year that he was hopeful of passing immigration reform in 2014, envisioning a compromise granting legal status to illegal immigrants.

On Wednesday, Paul offered further proof that Cantor’s defeat did not necessarily mean immigration reform would be toxic to all GOP candidates: Sen. Lindsey Graham, (R-S.C.) co-author of the Senate’s comprehensive reform bill, convincingly won his own primary Tuesday.

Alexandra Jaffe contributed.