Campaign Columnists

Tea Party to face tests this spring

Over the next two months, political journalists will either be writing about the Tea Party’s downfall or about its resurgence.

Right now, the GOP establishment has the edge as primary season starts in full force on Tuesday. Top races in North Carolina, Kentucky, Nebraska, Georgia, Mississippi and South Carolina will determine whether the Tea Party’s bite is as big as its bark or whether national Republicans have finally succeeded at taming the often unruly part of their party.

May and June feature some of the biggest Senate primaries where conservatives groups — eyeing top scalps — have heavily engaged. But their best shots appear to be in open-seat contests, not against incumbents.

{mosads}The outcomes in several contests will have implications on how competitive the general election is and whether Democrats could steal a race or two from the GOP.

Here’s the most important Tea Party vs. establishment races to watch:

May 6: North Carolina  Senate

The messy GOP primary to take on Sen. Kay Hagan (D) has gotten a little cleaner in recent days. Polls show state House Speaker Thom Tillis is inching toward the threshold to avoid a runoff, in part thanks to endorsements and outside spending from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and American Crossroads.

If he does top the 40 percent mark, the GOP establishment will have an early victory to crow about in addition to getting the candidate it thinks is the strongest to take on Hagan. But if Tillis falls short, he’ll have to face either physician Greg Brannon, who’s been endorsed by Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Mike Lee (R-Utah) and FreedomWorks or Baptist minister Mark Harris, backed by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R). A July runoff would further deplete Tillis’s pockets and give the Tea Party another chance to knock him off.

May 13: Nebraska Senate

Both Midland University President Ben Sasse and former state Treasurer Shane Osborn have battled for the Tea Party mantle in this open-seat primary, but it’s Sasse who’s been the most successful, at least nationally.

Sasse has endorsements from the Senate Conservatives Fund, the Club for Growth and others, and FreedomWorks even flipped to his camp after previously backing Osborn, claiming his campaign was too close to GOP Senate Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.). Osborn has fired back, citing his local and state Tea Party support.

The two have been squaring off to see who’s the most conservative and hates ObamaCare the most. The primary outcome won’t have any bearing on the general election, but a Sasse win would give the Tea Party one in their win column, even though Osborn’s voting record wouldn’t be much different.

May 20: Kentucky, Georgia Senate; Idaho House 

This may be the granddaddy of the Tea Party Tuesday primaries. Conservative outside groups have been aiming to take out Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) for more than a year.

But businessman Matt Bevin, backed by Senate Conservatives Fund and FreedomWorks, has been no match for the longtime senator’s campaign machine and is still trailing heavily in polls.

After the primary, McConnell can fully turn his attention to his much tougher race against Alison Lundergan Grimes (D).

Georgia’s Senate GOP primary is far less clear, though. There’s virtually no way that this contest doesn’t go to a July runoff, and the question remains which candidates will advance.

Rep. Jack Kingston (R) has gotten the clearest establishment support with the backing of the Chamber of Commerce, and the former appropriator is no favorite of conservative groups. He’s polling just behind wealthy businessman David Perdue, but former Secretary of State Karen Handel is on the rise. She’s gotten the backing of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and RedState’s Erick Erickson, but she still lacks money. The good news for establishment Republicans here, though, may be that the two candidates who worry them the most — Reps. Paul Broun and Phil Gingrey — don’t look like they’ll make it to the runoff.

A lone House race in Idaho showcases one of the clearest establishment vs. Tea Party splits, too. Conservative outside groups have backed attorney Bryan Smith over Rep. Mike Simpson, ally of Speaker John Boehner.

The Club for Growth and others have been hammering Simpson and boosting Smith, but the incumbent has gotten help from pro-business groups like the Chamber, the American Dental Association and the National Association of Realtors. Simpson looks likely to hang on, but this would be a big win for Tea Party groups.

May 27: Texas House runoff

Ninety-year-old Rep. Ralph Hall (R) looks like the most vulnerable incumbent in the country in his runoff against self-funding former U.S. Attorney John Ratcliffe. While Hall won by 17 points in the March primary, Ratcliffe has since won the backing of the Club for Growth, the Senate Conservatives Fund and the Madison Project. With a low turnout, many in the state fear it’s Ratcliffe’s supporters who will be more motivated.

June 3: Mississippi and Iowa Senate

The Mississippi Senate primary might be the Tea Party’s best chance to knock off a GOP senator this year, but beating Sen. Thad Cochran (R) won’t be as easy as it once hoped.

State Sen. Chris McDaniel jumped in before Cochran even said he was running again, and coalesced national conservative groups behind him. The 76-year-old Cochran has battled back with help from the Chamber of Commerce and a state-based super-PAC  that is backing him. Plus, McDaniel has been put on the defensive by having to explain past controversial comments he made on his radio show.

The race isn’t a done deal, but Republicans feel much better about Cochran than they did earlier this year. Still, if McDaniel wins, Democrats are running centrist ex-Rep. Travis Childers, hoping to pull an upset like Indiana’s Senate race in 2012.

Meanwhile, Iowa is another state where battle lines aren’t exactly clear. Self-funding businessman Mark Jacobs may look like the most establishment-friendly candidate, though national Republicans might prefer rising state Sen. Joni Ernst.

She’s seen her numbers on the rise, and has won support from the party’s establishment and conservative blocs, with endorsements not just from former 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney but also the Senate Conservatives Fund and from Palin. Radio host Sam Clovis and former U.S. Attorney Matt Whitaker have Tea Party support and endorsements, too.

There might not be a clear winner if no candidate gets 35 percent anyway, and the battle for the nomination could be a free-for-all if this goes to a convention to pick the nominee, worrying national Republicans.

June 10: South Carolina Senate

On paper, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) should be one of this year’s most vulnerable incumbents to a GOP challenge. He’s frequently a compromise architect in the Senate, hasn’t been afraid to criticize his party’s most conservative wing and remains a champion of immigration reform.

But with a big-spending game plan that began months ago, coupled with Tea Party groups’ inability to coalesce behind one candidate, he could top 50 percent in the first round over his six challengers and avoid a runoff two weeks later.

No major groups have waded into the race against him. Late entrant Det Bowers looked like he might have a late surge after raising more than $417,000 in just two months, and he just got the endorsement of RedState’s Erickson on Wednesday. But a report last week that the Christian minister once preached a sermon blaming women loving their children for divorces, even if their husbands were unfaithful, could have an impact.

June 24: Oklahoma primary

The battle lines were drawn early in the contest to succeed retiring Sen. Tom Coburn (R). While two-term Rep. James Lankford has a conservative voting record, his position in GOP leadership has been enough for outside groups to tar him and pick former state House Speaker T.W. Shannon instead. Shannon has racked up Tea Party endorsements from the Senate Conservatives Fund, FreedomWorks, Sarah Palin and others, and he has an appealing profile with his half African-American, half Chickasaw background.

Even though Lankford started out as the clear favorite, Shannon has quickly closed the gap. This could well become a late victory for the Tea Party in another open seat.

Tags Boehner FreedomWorks John Boehner Kay Hagan Lindsey Graham Mike Lee Mitch McConnell Paul Broun Phil Gingrey Political Endorsement Ralph Hall Rand Paul Tea Party movement Tea Party protests Thad Cochran Tom Coburn

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