Don't Worry Republicans, Your Tea Party Challengers Aren't Going to Win

Seven of 12 Republican senators are facing primary challenges. Most of them have nothing to worry about.

Steve Stockman, Texas District 36.  (National Journal)

To the uninitiated, Rep. Steve Stockman of Texas holds the resume of someone who could threaten Sen. John Cornyn. The two-time congressman's outspoken, off-the-cuff conservatism would, on paper, be the right pose for a challenger mounting an insurgent campaign against a deep-pocketed senator who's seen as too close to the establishment.

But dive a bit deeper, and Stockman's record is filled with obvious landmines that would scare away even the most committed tea-party allies. As a congressman in the 1990s, he accused the Clinton administration of staging the Waco raid to promote an assault-weapons ban. Stockman supposedly managed several businesses that may not even exist. He was once caught smuggling Valium wrapped in his underwear. He currently holds more campaign debt than money in his campaign account. Even the Club for Growth, which enjoys pestering the GOP establishment, declined to endorse his candidacy Tuesday, while praising Cornyn's conservative record.

Stockman may be an extreme example, but behind the tea-party wave that's challenged the supremacy of the Republican establishment is a slew of not-ready-for-primetime conservative Senate candidates. Outside groups, led by the Senate Conservatives Fund, have rallied behind numerous primary challengers, more focused on their principles than their ability to win. But like an undisciplined batter swinging at every pitch, the GOP has shown that there's little concerted strategy behind the opposition. Conservatives may boast a record number of candidates running against sitting Republican senators--seven of the 12 GOP senators up in 2014 are facing primary opponents--but their batting average could be embarrassingly low at the end.

Indeed, the Club for Growth has endorsed only one of the renegades, Mississippi state Sen. Chris McDaniel, with no plans to get involved in any other Senate races.

"Our effectiveness comes from our uncompromising focus on our mission and our proven ability to affect the outcome of races. If we got involved in races where we were sure that the candidates were going to lose no matter what we did "¦ we just would be wasting our members' money," said Club for Growth spokesman Barney Keller.

Of the seven primary challenges, Republican strategists view the Mississippi Senate race as the only contest where the challenger has a serious shot at winning. In that race, McDaniel, known as the Jim DeMint of the Mississippi state Legislature, jumped in the race before Sen. Thad Cochran announced his reelection plans. After the Thanksgiving holiday, Cochran announced he's running for a seventh term, but he hasn't faced a serious challenge in decades. Conservative groups have commissioned polling in Mississippi, concluding that the senior appropriator is at risk of losing reelection.

Other Republican senators are vulnerable on paper, but their prospects improve dramatically based on their competition. Sen. Lindsey Graham's popularity in South Carolina has dipped over his advocacy for immigration reform, but none of his challengers has put together a campaign organization threatening his reelection. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's approval ratings are in dangerous territory in Kentucky, but he's lately spent more time focused on his Democratic opponent than his deep-pocketed tea-party rival. Sen. Lamar Alexander raised millions in preparation for a tough primary challenge in Tennessee, but his opponent, state Rep. Joe Carr, is nonviable, even to harsh Alexander critics. Even Liz Cheney, positioning herself as a tea-party renegade in Wyoming, badly trails Sen. Michael Enzi in early polling.

If Stockman didn't carry loads of personal baggage, his odds against the former NRSC chairman would still be near-impossible. With the Texas primary in March, challengers have only three months to raise the millions necessary to mount a serious campaign in an expensive state. Stockman ended September with his campaign account in debt.

In fact, the consequence of running weak challengers against vulnerable Senate incumbents is that it has emboldened the Republican senators to double down on their inner mavericks. In the face of primary opposition, Graham has remained a stalwart supporter of comprehensive immigration reform, continuing to anger parts of the base. McConnell helped forge the deal to end the government shutdown, showing less concern over his primary opponent Matt Bevin. He's now launching a campaign against the legitimacy of the Senate Conservatives Fund, which endorsed Bevin. Alexander still talks about his record of bipartisanship, and has been a critic of the party's tea-party wing.

"It's difficult to beat an incumbent. It's expensive. If you bark all the time and never win, it doesn't accomplish much. If you endorse primary challengers willy-nilly and lose, you lose the ability to affect policy," said one GOP strategist involved in Senate primaries.

But groups backing conservative primary challenges argue that the slew of Republican primary challengers is a reflection of genuine grassroots resistance to the party, a point bolstered by the GOP's historically low approval ratings. The Senate Conservatives Fund, the most active of the conservative groups, has endorsed three primary opponents to sitting Republican senators. Just this week, it rebuked Cornyn's record in a statement about the Texas Senate race--while stopping short of endorsing Stockman--and backed physician Milton Wolf in his challenge against Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas.

"These candidates would not be popping up and running if they didn't believe there was support for them to run. It's something that Senate Republicans need to look inward to evaluate, why is this happening?" said Senate Conservatives Fund Executive Director Matt Hoskins.

"That was why DeMint created the Senate Conservatives Fund. He wanted to level the playing field, wanted to get a candidate great on the issues who had promise, to give them a fighting chance."