In the war between the GOP Establishment and the Tea Party, Tuesday was a bloody day for the Tea Party.
GOP Establishment candidates coasted to victories in the North Carolina senate race, a key House primary there, and in Ohio, where a hand-picked protege of former Rep. Steven LaTourette staved off a conservative primary challenge. Meanwhile, a former Bush aide nearly knocked off 20-year incumbent Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC), although the ideological fault lines in the race were unusual, and Speaker John Boehner trounced two primary challengers.
Although the elections held Tuesday were only the first major contest in a series of upcoming primary battles, some activists and national conservative leaders are already discussing what went wrong.
“Where was the Madison Project, where was Tea Party Express, where were the Tea Party Patriots?” radio host Laura Ingraham asked on her program Wednesday, referring to radio host Frank Roche’s 18 point loss to Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-NC).
“Hundreds of thousands of dollars in outside ad support rolled in for Ellmers from well-known pro-amnesty groups, including liberal Mark Zuckerberg’s FWD.us. Meanwhile, the Tea Party Patriots PAC gave Roche nada. Nothing. Zilch. Heck, they didn’t even return Roche’s calls. So it’s no surprise that Ellmers won big,” Ingraham wrote on her blog.
Judson Phillips, the founder of Tea Party Nation, who has previously run for office and helped in numerous other political campaigns, told Breitbart News the main problem was a lack of high-quality candidates.
“A successful Tea Party campaign requires a credible challenger with enough political experience to raise money and avoid rookie mistakes,” Phillips said. “Second the campaign needs unified and energetic support from the local grassroots. Third, and finally, the campaign requires ‘uncoordinated’ financial support from outside national groups sufficient to match or surpass the combined financial resources of the incumbent and the national groups that support him or her,” Phillips said.
Jones, who said he was “very concerned about the growing influence of big money in campaigns,” said the answer might lie in a third party movement.
“If the party, as we get into 2016, is not extending the hand of welcome to Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Michelle Bachmann-types, then it’s going to be making a serious mistake. If that happens, I hope it won’t happen, then one of those names or someone else could start a third party movement. Because, I’m going to tell you something, the young people are dissatisfied with the Republicans and Democrats,” Jones said.
In the open Nebraska Senate primary May 13, Ben Sasse, a candidate with the support of all the major national Tea Party groups, is leading polls. And in Mississippi, state senator Chris McDaniel has a solid chance of knocking off incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran.
But the 2014 primary season is showing that Establishment candidates are more aware of the risks of a primary challenge, while many Tea Party candidates aren’t operating at the same level as the sophisticated and well-financed campaigns of the Establishment candidates.
In Roche’s case, for instance, the main issue seems to have been fundraising, or the lack of it.
Reports filed with the Federal Election Committee, current up to April 15, just three weeks prior to the primary, indicate that Roche raised only $23,000 for his entire campaign to that point. These are not the kind of fundraising numbers you would expect from a serious, credible challenger.
In contrast, Ellmers, his incumbent opponent, raised $944,00 during the same period. In addition, national groups spent heavily in support of Ellmers, while no national Tea Party affiliated groups spent any money in support of Roche.
“An Ellmers defeat would have sent shockwaves through Washington; Roche won almost half the vote with no money, and no outside support,” Ingraham said.
Ingraham could have mentioned Club for Growth as another of the Tea Party affiliated national groups that failed to support Roche. His supporters said they found this particularly irritating, since early on the Club for Growth targeted Ellmers as one of ten incumbent Republicans featured for defeat at their website PrimaryMyCongressman.
In the North Carolina Senate race, Thom Tillis easily cleared the 40 percent margin needed to avoid a runoff with Tea Party-backed Dr. Greg Brannon.
Tillis’s 45 percent of the vote was just slightly more than the combined 27 percent obtained by Tea Party-backed Dr. Greg Brannon and 16 percent obtained by Baptist pastor Mark Harris, who was endorsed by Mike Huckabee.
As a candidate, Brannon performed well in fundraising. He raised and spent over $1.2 million. While almost $1 million less than the $2.1 million Tillis spent, it was enough to get his message out.
Most of Tillis’s financial advantage came from money spent by outside groups, including the $1.5 million spent by Rove’s American Crossroads. Indeed, according to Federal Election Commission reports, the Tillis campaign kept $1.1 million of the $3.2 million it raised in the bank for the November general election against Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan (D-NC).
But as a first time candidate, Brannon stumbled, particularly in his inability to adequately to negative commercials that hit him hard for a lawsuit he lost during the campaign to a former patient and her husband who invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in a venture that failed in which he was a key player.
Besides providing a very entertaining commercial that made fund of Speaker Boehner’s “electile dysfunction,” J.D. Winteregg never was a serious challenger in the Ohio 8th Congressional District primary.
A 32-year-old high school French teacher with a PhD., Winteregg had never run for elected office before and raised a mere $48,000. Granted, that was more than the paltry $23,000 Roche raised in North Carolina, but it simply was never even in the ballpark when compared to the millions of dollars (unneeded as it turned out) that were available to Boehner.
In the wake of the losses, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and radio host Mark Levin both issued shots across the bow at the Establishment.
Palin warned that gloating by the GOP establishment could backfire. “The GOP establishment must ratchet any kind of arrogance way down and get in touch with independent, constitutional conservatives who build the base of the party,” she said in a statement Wednesday. “They do the thankless work to put boots on the ground for your campaigns, and they show up to vote if you give us good reason to vote. Anything less and we will not secure victory for America this fall.”
Levin angrily denounced the Establishment.
“These people,” Levin said,”are not about empowering the American people, they’re about empowering themselves. They see a majority in the House and a majority in the Senate, not as an opportunity to serve the people but to serve themselves.”
Other conservatives offered a more optimistic take.
Jacqueline Bodnar, communications director at FreedomWorks, one of the national Tea Party affiliated groups that endorsed Brannon, saw an ideological victory in Brannon’s loss.
Bodnar told Breitbart News “[t]aking on the establishment in each of these races is important for a number of reasons, one of which being that the grassroots set the agenda. Greg Brannon and all the grassroots activists on the ground in NC are the reason that the establishment-chamber candidate ran on tea party issues. They’re the reason that Thom Tillis made a 180 degree turn from saying that ObamaCare was a ‘great idea that just couldn’t be paid for,’ to calling it a cancer on the nation.”
Jenny Beth Martin, head of the Tea Party Patriots, said she will keep moving forward.
“We don’t spend our time looking in the rear-view mirror,” she said, urging activists to “join forces to defeat Kay Hagan.”
Martin attributed Brannon’s loss to him being outspent by Tillis.
“We’re proud of the endorsement we made, and we’re proud of the race Dr. Brannon ran. Up against one of the most powerful Republicans in the state, who was aided by millions in outside spending from his friends at the Chamber of Commerce and the Crossroads Complex, Greg Brannon ran a tough, uphill campaign and was vastly outspent,” she said.
Brannon’s campaign manager, Reilly O’Neal, also urged Republicans to line up behind Tillis. Brannon “has said all along he will support the winner of the Republican primary,” O’Neal said, adding that Brannon “hopes that Mr. Tillis will adopt some of the principles of the liberty movement.”