Tea Party Senate candidates flop

The Tea Party’s much-hyped war on GOP Senate incumbents is officially a bust.

With Sen. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderThe Hill's Morning Report - How will Trump be received in Dayton and El Paso? McConnell faces pressure to bring Senate back for gun legislation Criminal justice reform should extend to student financial aid MORE’s (R-Tenn.) victory on Thursday night, conservative groups have failed to net a single incumbent scalp this cycle. No other GOP incumbents face major primary challenges this year.

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It’s the first time since 2008 that an incumbent Republican wasn’t toppled — a major victory for the GOP establishment, who promised early on that they weren’t going to let outside forces elect candidates who might keep the party from taking winnable general election races.

Tea Party groups boasted early on that they would take down aging centrists Thad CochranWilliam (Thad) Thad CochranBiden has a lot at stake in first debate The Hill's Morning Report — Trump turns the page back to Mueller probe Trump praises Thad Cochran: 'A real senator with incredible values' MORE (Miss.) and Pat Roberts (Kan.). Alexander and Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamTwo-thirds of Republicans support 'red flag' gun laws: NPR poll Red flag laws won't stop mass shootings — ending gun-free zones will Pelosi warns Mnuchin to stop 'illegal' .3B cut to foreign aid MORE (S.C.) were targets, as was Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellPelosi, Schumer press for gun screenings as Trump inches away The malware election: Returning to paper ballots only way to prevent hacking First House Republican backs bill banning assault weapons MORE (Ky.).

And remember when Sen. Mike EnziMichael (Mike) Bradley EnziThe 23 Republicans who opposed Trump-backed budget deal On The Money: Fed poised to give Trump boost with rate cut | Parties unable to reach deal in Trump tax return lawsuit | New York opens investigation into Capital One data breach Outgoing Senate Budget chair unveils plans to replace Budget Committee MORE (Wyo.) was going to lose to Liz CheneyElizabeth (Liz) Lynn CheneyDick Cheney to attend fundraiser supporting Trump reelection: report Steve King says 'left-wing media' and GOP leadership owe him apology after rape, incest comments GOP memo deflects some gun questions to 'violence from the left' MORE?

Here’s a refresher on how the GOP establishment beat back the challenges:

 

  • WYOMING: Cheney, the daughter of former Vice President Cheney, moved back to her home state to launch an ill-fated bid against Enzi, attacking the veteran senator on his positions and age. She never seemed to gain much steam, was never fully embraced by Tea Party groups and ended her bid in early January, citing family concerns. Enzi is expected to cruise to victory later this month.
  • TEXAS (March 4): Conservatives may have wanted to take out Senate Majority Whip John CornynJohn CornynThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump on defense over economic jitters Democrats keen to take on Cornyn despite formidable challenges The Hill's Campaign Report: Battle for Senate begins to take shape MORE, but quixotic Rep. Steve Stockman certainly wasn’t the one to do it. He didn’t get backing from national groups and floundered.
  • KENTUCKY (May 20): McConnell was supposed to be the Tea Party’s biggest scalp. Even though the Senate Conservatives Fund and others spent millions backing businessman Matt Bevin, McConnell crushed him by 25 points.
  • SOUTH CAROLINA (June 10): Tea Party groups were never able to settle on a challenger to Graham, another immigration reform backer and bipartisan actor. Graham didn’t even need a runoff to finish off his foes.
  • MISSISSIPPI (June 24 runoff): Thad Cochran looked like a goner after being forced into a runoff against state Sen. Chris McDaniel, who got the most support from outside groups this cycle. But the incumbent pulled off the upset three weeks later, though he’s still claiming fraud and trying to challenge the results.
  • KANSAS (Aug. 5): Radiologist Milton Wolf had baggage and skeletons that hampered his campaign. He might have been a contender, given Roberts’s miscues on how much time he really spent in the state. Roberts’s margin wasn’t huge on Tuesday, but he still won.
  • TENNESSEE (Aug. 7): Alexander’s 9-point margin over Carr was a bit surprising, especially since he did it with virtually no outside help. The veteran will head back to the Senate touting his bipartisan credentials the whole way.

 

Tea Party groups are shrugging off their flops, saying they succeeded in forcing several members to move to the right.

“Some people worry about our batting average. George Washington lost more battles than he won, but he won the war,” Senate Conservatives Fund President Ken Cuccinelli said Friday morning at the RedState gathering in Texas.

“There's a ripple effect to everything that we do and you can see it in the change of voting behavior from members of Congress,” said Club for Growth spokesman Barney Keller. “[Former Utah Sen. Bob] Bennet loses and [Utah Sen. Orrin] Hatch starts voting like Jim DeMint.”

“This is all about policy and I think it's pretty clear we're impacting it in a pro-growth direction regardless of each individual election outcome,” said Keller.

Others shrugged off the losses, pointing to successes in open seat races, like Ben Sasse in Nebraska.

“There's no evidence conservative policy can't win a primary and even the worst Tea Party candidates are running pretty strong campaigns,” said one Tea Party-aligned strategist. “The scary thing is what happens if a Ben Sasse or someone runs against a Thad Cochran? Everyone knows who wins that race. If even a Chris McDaniel can get more votes in a Republican primary than Thad Cochran then the movement is alive and well.”

Detractors point out that the Senate Conservatives Fund, the loudest instigator in the establishment versus Tea Party fight, gleefully spent its money attacking Republicans in primaries instead of helping in competitive races to knock off Democrats. According to calculations, the SCF invested just over $5 million on losing campaigns. When salaries and other overhead is added in, that rises above $13 million, or about 84 percent of its total operating budget.

“The good news is that Republicans avoided another Christine O'Donnell scenario and have a great field of candidates heading into the fall,” said GOP strategist Brian Walsh, a former National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman and frequent critic of the SCF and other Tea Party groups.

“The unfortunate news is that D.C. conservative groups wasted millions of dollars attacking good Republicans that now aren't available to help retire Harry Reid as majority leader. Hopefully their donors will take note of that for the future and we can all work together next cycle to hold the Democrats accountable."