- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The GOP establishment has rattled off a series of victories in the opening rounds of the 2014 primary season, sending a strong reminder of the power its web of fundraisers, donors and kingmakers wield at the ballot box and leaving the tea party looking for its first signature win of the election year.

That is a stark departure from the 2010 and 2012 election cycles, when groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Karl Rove’s super PAC American Crossroads stayed on the sidelines as some tea party-backed candidates won nomination races only to lose them to Democrats in general election races that analysts deemed winnable.

“You are seeing that mainstream, center-right, Republicans aren’t going to be surprised in low turnout off year elections by tea party candidates,” said former Rep. Steve LaTourette, who now heads the Main Street Partnership, a group of moderate Republicans. “So what you did see in the primaries is fire being fought with fire.”

Mr. LaTourette said several of the tea party candidacies that once had high hopes — including Matt Bevin in Kentucky and Milton Wolf in Kansas — are petering out, leaving the grass-roots movement with fewer opportunities to pick off Republicans.

“As each of the primaries goes by, they get more desperate to get a scalp,” he said.

Kevin Broughton, spokesman for the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund, told The Times that his group was disappointed with the primary results, and said that the national media seems to have forgotten that Curt Clawson, tea party backed candidate, won the special election primary last month for Florida’s 19th Congressional District seat.

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“It is too early to be dancing on our graves,” Mr. Broughton said. “There is a lot of football to be played. We are going to keep doing what we do, and that is mobilizing and educating our members and getting them on the street and getting them on the phones.”

Chris Wilson, a GOP pollster, warned against reading too much into the early primary results.

“The breathless declarations on the death of the tea party are so premature it’s laughable,” Mr. Wilson said, claiming that the contests did not feature any clear tea party versus establishment contests.

He said the next big indicator will come in the June 3 Mississippi primary, where the establishment has lined up behind Sen. Thad Cochran, and tea party aligned groups are backing state Sen. Chris McDaniel. He also pointed to the June 24 primary race to replace retiring Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, where tea partyers are rallying behind state House Speaker T.W. Shannon.

Analysts agreed it was too soon to say the tea party had run its course.

“You can’t write the tea party obituary yet,” said former Virginia Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, who served as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee from 1998 to 2002, then later ran the Main Street Partnership. “But clearly the tea party groups did not perform up to expectations.”

Mr. Davis said the tea party is a potent and important part of the Republican coalition, but simply outnumbered by the establishment wing of the party. “There are more of us then there are of them,” Mr. Davis said.

Mr. LaTourette said that his message to the tea party is that the Republican party welcomes them. “But we need you to work within the confines of the Republican party and not try to blow it up and make it equal to the tea party,” he said.

Some polls have shown that the clout of the tea party is waning and that the more familiar that voters — including self-described moderate and conservative Republicans — get with the tea party, the less they like it.

That could help explain why Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, was so eager to make the case Wednesday that the tea party “has won the civil war that has been raging inside the Republican Party.”

Speaking with reporters at a breakfast discussion hosted by the Christian Science Monitor, Ms. Wasserman Schultz insisted that the tea party influence on Republican candidates, regardless of whether they are considered part of the party establishment, will make them vulnerable in general election match-ups against Democrats.

“They are taking positions that are out of step with mainstream voters, particularly independents who are ultimately going to decide the outcome of these elections,” she said.

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