The Noisy, Quixotic, Delusional Tea Partiers of August

Republican insurgents have caused lots of trouble but won few victories this year. But GOP incumbents aren't out of danger yet.
Benh LIEU SONG/Flickr

Remember Chris McDaniel? Back in May, the Mississippi Republican state senator nearly took out a 36-year incumbent, Senator Thad Cochran. But after forcing Cochran into a runoff, McDaniel fell short in the second round of voting, losing to Cochran by just 7,700 votes—or so the lamestream media would have you believe.

McDaniel doesn’t buy it. He never conceded, his supporters insist the election was marred by fraud, and McDaniel continues to barnstorm Mississippi like a Southern-fried Captain Ahab. On Monday, McDaniel held a press conference to announce that he was filing a lawsuit challenging the election result. His lawyer claimed (without substantiation) that he had actually won the runoff by 25,000 votes, and demanded he be awarded the nomination by the state Republican Party without further delay.

McDaniel makes a good symbol for this year’s Republican infighting. The challengers to GOP incumbents have been noisy, quixotic, and a bit delusional. They have succeeded in costing Republican officeholders a lot of money and hassle and forcing new candidates far to the right, but they have not managed to topple many incumbents, with the notable exception of former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who quit the House altogether last week rather than face the indignity of moving to a smaller office for a few months.

But the Republican establishment isn’t out of danger yet. One last spate of primaries this month provides fresh opportunities for the party’s grassroots to rise up and claim more heads for its trophy wall. All are long shots; most likely, the various insurgent challengers will have about as much impact as McDaniel. But polling is sparse and primaries can be unpredictable, meaning there’s always the possibility of another Cantor-like surprise on the horizon. Mark your calendar:

Kansas, August 5: Senator Pat Roberts versus Milton Wolf
Roberts, a 33-year Washington veteran, sought to head off a Tea Party challenge to his reelection by veering sharply to the right. A onetime chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, this year he voted against the farm bill, and he opposed a spending bill that contained a major project for Kansas State University. Roberts’ challenger, a radiologist who has never held elected office and is a distant cousin of President Obama, hasn’t done himself any favors: He was found to have a bad habit of posting his patients’ X-rays online and making insensitive comments about their injuries, some of them fatal. But Roberts can’t seem to stop reminding voters he’s a bit out of touch, whether joking to the New York Times that his Kansas residence these days consists of his friend’s recliner or telling a local interviewer recently, “Every time I get an opponent—I mean, every time I get a chance, I’m home.” The latest poll had Roberts up 20 points, prompting Wolf to declare he was closing the gap.

Bonus Kansas undercard: Representative Mike Pompeo versus former Representative Todd Tiahrt. Eight-term former congressman Tiahrt has decided he wants his old job back from Pompeo, who was elected to represent Wichita in 2010 when Tiahrt ran unsuccessfully for Senate. The staunchly conservative Pompeo practices what he preaches in his crusade against federal spending. Tiahrt charges that he’s depriving the state of the federal spending it dearly needs. Their battle is a showdown between today’s sharply ideological conservatism and the more pragmatic Republican brand of yesteryear. Koch Industries, which is based in the district, is backing Pompeo.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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