Tea party challenges to Republican senators are fizzling across the country, leaving Mississippi as the only state where a longtime Republican officeholder is seriously endangered by a primary threat from his right.
Sen. Thad Cochran has stumbled, both verbally and in his voting record, and won’t get the backing of the American Conservative Union in his primary battle against Mississippi state Sen. Chris McDaniel — though the U.S. Chamber of Commerce says it still supports the incumbent.
But in Kentucky, Kansas and South Carolina, tea party-backed challengers are struggling to gain traction in polls with arguments that the incumbents have been captured by Washington special interests and have turned their backs on grass-roots conservatives.
“I think the Mississippi Senate race is a great race to watch to evaluate this establishment versus anti-establishment dynamic that is going on within the Republican Party,” said Nathan Gonzales of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report.
The same fight has played out over the past two elections. Tea party candidates scored major gains in 2010 by winning contested Republican Party primaries in a number of states, though some of those challengers fared poorly in the general elections. The movement struggled in 2012, but claimed success with Ted Cruz’s Senate win in Texas and vowed a resurgence this year.
But a handful of candidates running under the insurgent banner have failed to gain traction in South Carolina against Sen. Lindsey Graham; in Kansas, Milton Wolf hasn’t dented the huge lead of Sen. Pat Roberts; and in Kentucky, Matt Bevin trails far behind Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
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Mr. Gonzales said the Mississippi primary race appears to be the most competitive partly because Mr. McDaniel has credibility among voters by holding elected office, unlike the political newcomers in other states.
“I think by nature of being a state legislator he has undergone at least some level of scrutiny before,” he said. “I think we are seeing with Bevin and Milton Wolf what can sometimes happen when first-time candidates try to make this jump. They are under a level of scrutiny that they have never been under before.”
The Mississippi race also is the only primary battle in which the Club for Growth, the Senate Conservatives Fund, FreedomWorks, and the Madison Project all have endorsed the challenger — Mr. McDaniel.
Just as striking is the American Conservative Union’s rebuff of Mr. Cochran. The organization said it will announce a decision about whether to back his challenger after the Conservative Political Action Conference this week.
“We are not going to support Thad Cochran,” ACU Chairman Al Cardenas said. “He has shown that in spite of being in a very red state, he has not voted as a conservative.”
Mr. Cardenas, however, said the ACU will support the re-election bids of Mr. McConnell and Mr. Roberts. Both won top ACU honors for voting conservative at least 80 percent of the time last year.
Mr. McConnell scored 92 percent in a survey that the ACU released last month, and Mr. Roberts scored 84 percent. Mr. Graham scored 68 percent and Mr. Cochran scored 60 percent, even though they represent two of the most conservative states in the union.
“If you are an incumbent and you voted as a conservative according to our ratings, then it would be foolish for us to encourage you to vote the right way and then turn our backs and support a challenger,” Mr. Cardenas said. “We will not challenge against an incumbent who receives 80 percent or higher unless there are moral turpitude issues.”
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, though, praised Mr. Cochran’s record.
“Sen. Cochran is a conservative champion for American free enterprise, and his 88 percent lifetime record with the U.S. Chamber demonstrates his support for issues that will grow the economy and create jobs,” said Rob Engstrom, the chamber’s senior vice president and national political director. “The chamber is proud to stand with him.”
The chamber also is backing Mr. McConnell and Mr. Roberts in their re-election fights against Mr. Bevin, a Louisville businessman, and Mr. Wolf, a radiologist in the Kansas City area.
Both veteran lawmakers have benefited from their rivals’ rookie mistakes.
Mr. Bevin struggled to explain away his apparent support of the 2008 Wall Street bailout, an issue he has used to attack Mr. McConnell.
After bruising questions about how much time Mr. Roberts spends in Kansas, Mr. Wolf turned the focus of the race by posting patient X-rays to Facebook and then making off-color jokes about them.
“I don’t see Wolf honestly right now as a very serious challenger,” said Burdett A. “Bird” Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas. “Milton Wolf had no political base at all in the state and every Republican virtually is supporting Roberts.
“I just have a very, very hard time compared to some other states as seeing this as serious,” he said. “If I was grading him on a 10-point scale, he’d maybe be a 2.5.”
Matt Hickam, a Kansas GOP strategist, said Mr. Roberts is working to make sure Mr. Wolf does not gain any momentum. The senator’s campaign is funneling more than $100,000 into an early television ad that says, “Wolf exposed private patient X-rays and other personal information on Facebook — where Wolf relentlessly poked fun at the dead or wounded.”
“Pat Roberts is a Marine — he takes his battles very seriously,” Mr. Hickam said, adding that this is not the way Mr. Wolf wants to introduce himself to Kansas voters. “With this many missteps right out of the gate, it is going to be very difficult for him to recover.”