The Tea Party's Over

Outside conservative groups are experiencing the limits of their influence.

Tea Party member John Wallmeyer watches results from the Virginia Governor's race at an election night gathering of supporters of Republican candidate Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinell November 5, 2013 in Richmond, Virginia. Cuccinelli, running against Terry McAuliffe, became the first state attorney general to file a lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act when it was passed in 2010. (National Journal)

FreedomWorks issued an unusual round of endorsements this week. The conservative group, which won publicity for backing intraparty challenges to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Rep. Mike Simpson, decided to play it safe this time. It endorsed three senators and nine congressmen, none of whom face any serious competition — Republican or Democratic. It stayed out of the contested Oklahoma primary for Sen. Tom Coburn's seat, but endorsed Republican James Inhofe, who doesn't face any GOP opposition. In South Carolina, FreedomWorks is backing Sen. Tim Scott, who's a lock for reelection, but it isn't doing anything against vulnerable Sen. Lindsey Graham, who's also on the ballot this year.

All told, it's a sign that the group has stopped sticking its neck out for long-shot conservative insurgents and is content to put some easy victories on the board.

It's a far cry from the early ambitions of the aggressively antiestablishment group, which entered the cycle boldly challenging sitting senators, including the chamber's most powerful Republican. Now they're content to focus on their support for members of Congress who are as close to reelection locks as they come. Indeed, FreedomWorks' latest slam-dunk endorsements are emblematic of scaled-back ambitions from leading outside conservative groups.

Of the 10 "RINOs" in the House flagged for defeat by the Club for Growth last year, only one faces a primary opponent. With two of their leading Senate challengers' campaigns fizzling, the Senate Conservatives Fund has now decided to back conservatives in House primaries. And after raising only $766,000 in 2013 — less than one-third of their 2011 fundraising — FreedomWorks is now backing Republicans who are so safe that they don't need any outside help. Conservative groups are even disagreeing on which races to target.

2014 is shaping up as the year the Republican establishment is finding its footing. Of the 12 Republican senators on the ballot, six face primary competition, but only one looks seriously threatened: Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi. More significantly, only two House Republicans are facing credible competition from tea-party conservatives: Simpson and Rep. Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania — fewer than the number of conservative House Republicans facing competition from the establishment wing (Reps. Justin Amash, Walter Jones, and Kerry Bentivolio). With filing deadlines already passed in 23 states, it's hard to see that dynamic changing.

Even the Club for Growth, one of the first outside groups to target Republican members of Congress, has been notably disciplined this year. Last February, the Club encouraged candidates to run against 10 squishy House Republicans, launching a site featuring the so-called RINOs. Only one qualified challenger emerged. Their PAC is targeting just one Republican senator (Cochran, facing state Sen. Chris McDaniel) and one Republican congressman (Simpson). Meanwhile, they've joined forces with the party establishment in backing Senate candidates Rep. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Dan Sullivan of Alaska. The endorsement of Sullivan is significant, since they backed Joe Miller's losing general-election campaign against Sen. Lisa Murkowski in 2010. Miller's running again, but this time they're opposing him in the primary.

Given the mood of the Republican electorate, it's striking to see the disconnect between the number of conservative Senate primary challenges and the low number of conservatives running against House incumbents. With 211 Republicans running for reelection, only two are credibly being challenged from the right — less than 1 percent. That suggests the hunger for throwing out Republican senators is as much a product of outside intervention as a reflection of genuine grassroots opposition.

"There are a lot of Ted Cruz imitators that believe all you need to do is make the race national and raise a bunch of money online and get national groups to endorse you and everything will take care of itself," said one conservative strategist, lamenting the quality of prospective challengers. Many national groups, likewise, seem to be overestimating their own ability to reshape a race with a mere endorsement.

As my Atlantic colleague Molly Ball writes in the latest issue of Democracy, the tea party "is now more properly regarded as one faction among many in the Republican coalition — and a poorly organized, arriviste faction at that." She noted the fundraising struggles among most of the leading Senate tea-party challengers — in marked contrast to the quick millions raised by previous favorites, like Nevada's Sharron Angle and Delaware's Christine O'Donnell in 2010.

That doesn't mean the influence of the conservative grass roots has petered out. If anything, it demonstrates that conservatives have already reshaped the House to their liking in recent elections. This year's Senate class of Republicans, who won their last election before the emergence of the tea party, is merely a lagging indicator. Outside groups are still poised to play a significant role in open primaries, where it's easier to have an impact than against entrenched incumbents.

While the national focus has been on the targeted Republican senators, it's crowded primaries in Georgia, North Carolina, and Iowa that concern Republican strategists the most.

Republicans fear that weak, too-conservative candidates in these races could cost them valuable seats — with control of the Senate at stake. With the exception of FreedomWorks' backing of physician Greg Brannon in North Carolina, most conservative groups have remained on the sidelines in these crucial contests. But that could change if the Georgia and North Carolina races head into runoffs, or if the Iowa nominating fight heads to a convention (if no one wins 35 percent or more of the vote in a primary). For now there's an uncomfortable GOP détente — with neither side tipping the scales yet.

If outside conservative groups endorse like-minded candidates like Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia, Iowa talk-show host Sam Clovis, and Brannon in these primaries, expect a heated ideological battle to break out over the future of the party. But if they pull their punches, it's a sign that even tea-party sympathizers recognize their influence has peaked.

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