- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 21, 2014

Sen. John McCain likely has a bull’s-eye on his back, but tea party groups have signaled that they expect the 2016 Senate races to be a lot more about defending the small government champions the movement helped win in the 2010 wave election than in headhunting ‘establishment’ Republicans.

Mr. McCain, an Arizona Republican and the GOP’s presidential nominee in 2008, has already said he expects to face a primary challenge, and tea party groups are talking up apparent early interest in the seat shown by Rep. David Schweikert.

On the other side is Sen. Mike Lee, Utah Republican, who was part of the 2010 tea party wave and who the groups are now rallying around, hoping to head off an establishment-backed challenge.

“If the Republican establishment wants to defeat Sen. Lee in a primary, they have their work cut out for them,” said Ken Cuccinelli, head of the Senate Conservatives Fund. “Not only do voters in Utah value him, there are thousands of freedom-loving Americans across the country who are ready to go to battle for him.”

The tea party ended with little to show for its election battles in 2014. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was unseated in a primary, but senators they targeted managed to survive in Kansas, Tennessee, Mississippi and Kentucky. But the chief storyline of 2014 was the GOP establishment getting its candidates and those candidates going on to capitalize, winning many of the seats Democrats had to defend.

Political analysts say 2016 is shaping up to be different, with Democrats only defending 10 seats and Republicans having to defend 24 seats, including in blue and purple states where they won in 2010 as part of the first anti-President Obama wave.

Two Republicans who tea party analysts say could run into trouble with their primary electorate are Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas, who led the National Republican Senatorial Campaign into contested primaries, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who lost a primary in 2010 to a tea party candidate but won her seat anyway as a write-in for the general election.

But the analysts said Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida has done a good job repairing his image after teaming up with Mr. McCain, Senate Democrats and Mr. Obama to push an immigration legalization bill.

And tea party groups say Sens. Mark Kirk of Illinois, Rob Portman of Ohio and Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania are likely as good as they are going to get in those states.

That leaves Mr. McCain, who at 78 appears to be leaning toward running for a sixth term, as the likely focus of a tea party attack.

“I think the top possibility is going to be Sen. John McCain,” said Taylor Budowich, executive director of Tea Party Express. “There seems to be the potential for a competitive race brewing there when you talk about the two conservative Congressmen looking at the race.”

Mr. Budowich said that Mr. McCain’s future also could be tied to whether Sarah Palin, who he tapped as his running mate in the 2008 presidential election, takes sides in the race. Some tea partyers are even holding out hope that Mrs. Palin would run for the seat.

For his part, Mr. McCain said he expects to face tea party opposition. Sen. Lindsey Graham, Mr. McCain’s top ally in the Senate, also faced tea party opposition this year, and won.

Tea partyers’ top defense will likely be mounted in Utah for Mr. Lee, who earned the ire of some fellow Republicans for joining forces with Sen. Ted Cruz, particularly in last week’s failed bid to alter the $1.1 trillion spending bill.

Mr. Lee, though, has already shored up support of a number of the big tea party-aligned pressure groups, earning the endorsement of the Tea Party Express, which endorsed him a year ago, and the Senate Conservatives Fund, Madison Project and Club for Growth, which blasted out a joint press release this week that downplayed the idea that Mr. Lee’s votes could hurt him in the primary season. They highlighted a poll that found that he is well positioned to win a second term.

“Other than endorsing Mike Lee for re-election already, we are really just in a process right now where no races in 2016 are eliminated from our radar,” Mr. Cuccinelli said. “The first ones to drop will be those states that are so liberal that a conservative candidate is not a realistic alternative; however, anything else is fair game for us at this stage.”

Mr. Budowich said vulnerable lawmakers could learn a lesson from past elections to see what works and what doesn’t when someone wants the grass roots on their side.

He said in 2012 that Orrin G. Hatch did a good job of reaching out to voters in Utah, while former Sen. Richard Lugar did not in his primary in Indiana.

Mr. Hatch held the Utah seat for Republicans, but the tea party candidate who defeated Mr. Lugar, Richard Mourdock, ended up losing the general election, delivering Indiana to Democrats.

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