How to Bite the Republican Establishment Without Getting Bitten Back

Rob Maness went after the party's favored candidate in the Louisiana Senate primary race, but even after losing, his former enemies now number among his most powerful supporters.

Rob Maness is in the midst of a bizarre political reversal. He spent 2014 making life difficult for the Republican establishment. He starts 2015 basking in its favor.

Last year, the GOP's hopes of taking the Senate hinged in part on ousting Louisiana incumbent Democrat Mary Landrieu, and party leadership had their candidate to do it: then-Rep. Bill Cassidy, a popular member of Congress and top party recruit. But Maness—a former Air Force colonel—had other plans, running against Cassidy in the Senate primary and ripping the party favorite as a faux-conservative on touchy topics like "amnesty" for illegal immigrants.

And on Election Night in November, Maness grabbed nearly 14 percent of the vote in Louisiana's "jungle" primary. Cassidy got almost triple that (41 percent) and went on to win Landrieu's seat in December after beating her in a December runoff election. Without Maness's challenge, however, Cassidy might have saved himself a month of drama and his party millions in election spending: Had Cassidy won a majority of the votes in the primary, under Louisiana election rules, he could have won the seat outright—no runoff needed.

For other thorns in the establishment's side, making a primary run, complicating life for the party, and then losing anyway would mean the end—or at least a major setback—to a political career.

Which makes what's currently happening in Louisiana all the more remarkable: Maness is not only resurrecting his political career, he is doing it with help from the very same people he spent last year goring. His new "Gator PAC," a financial stepping-stone for a possible future political run, boasts backing from Cassidy and David Vitter, the state's other Republican senator.

Maness's newfound establishment backing is all the more bizarre when one looks at the 2014 Senate map, which is littered with the skeletal remains of contenders such as Kansas's Milton Wolf, Mississippi's Chris McDaniel, and Kentucky's Matt Bevin, all of whom took on an establishment-backed candidate in 2014 only to find themselves both defeated and targeted in bitter intra-party takedowns of both their personal and professional lives. Wolf, a radiologist who held five-term Sen. Pat Roberts to less than 50 percent in Kansas's GOP primary, was branded a "creep" for posting patients' X-ray photos to Facebook. Bevin, whose supporters Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell threatened to "punch ... in the nose," came away from Kentucky's primary battling accusations that he supported cockfighting. And McDaniel, who came the closest to scoring a tea-party upset, became the subject of an ad in which Sen. Thad Cochran's campaign accused him of supporting a plot to film the senator's ailing wife in a nursing home.

And it's not as if Maness pulled punches in his primary contest: "Congressman [Bill] Cassidy deliberately mischaracterizes amnesty in order to avert attention from his liberal stance on immigration," then-candidate Maness blasted in a press release this past June.

"My objective was to win the primary, at least get into the runoff or win overall, so we went all out, as hard as we could," Maness said of the primary attacks in an interview Friday with National Journal. "I think we put up a good fight to hold Congressman Cassidy accountable for his record."

Instead, Maness's recapture of the establishment's good graces comes from a mix of strategy and political expedience. In terms of tactics, Maness won favor by immediately backing Cassidy in the runoff. Days after the primary, Maness and his wife broke bread with the Cassidy family. Maness emerged from the meeting publicly touting his support for Cassidy and campaigned for his former opponent in the weeks that followed.

But Maness's newfound friends are not only coming to him out of gratitude. He now has a sizable tea-party backing in the state, and establishment leaders are hoping an allegiance with Maness can keep them in good standing with his followers. That's especially true of Vitter, who is running for Louisiana governor this year and faces a struggle to get tea-party voters in the Republican primary.

"The big difference is that Rob ran in a state that has a competitive election coming again in the next year," said one GOP strategist of the difference between Maness's situation and those of other failed 2014 GOP insurgents. "You have a very competitive governor's race coming up that I think Vitter is definitely leading, but you look at [Public Service Commissioner] Scott Angelle and [Lt. Gov.] Jay Dardenne, and Vitter's path is really through the conservative vote to get through the first round."

For what it's worth, Maness says he plans to meet with Angelle and Dardenne, but that Vitter looks likely to get his stamp of approval. "A lot of the donors will come from my original campaign donor base," Maness said. "I think that's why folks like Senator Vitter are interested in the PAC, because they see that its views are going to be aligned much with his from a conservative perspective."

A Cassidy ally noted a similar benefit for Cassidy to back Maness: "The tea party is never going to see Bill as a champion of the tea party," he said. "But if they can see him as nonthreatening, and Rob can help give him cover on that, it's only a good thing."

For now, Maness is neither ruling out nor committing to any future runs. He says he's hoping his Gator PAC—whose name recalls a campaign ad in which Maness wrestled an alligator—will help keep some of his supporters engaged until such a decision comes. "We felt like the campaign gave our team the name recognition and voter base and donor base to make a viable effort of it."

Maness isn't expected to become a fundraising maven, but he has a solid base of support, and he has a sketched a blueprint for how to take on the party without burning bridges.

"He ran a grassroots campaign; he's not somebody who is going to have multimillion dollars to donate to others," said Jason Recher, a Louisiana-based GOP consultant who advises Maness on the PAC. "He built a great network and inspired a lot of new people to get involved in the process, and the PAC is a way for him to keep those folks engaged.... [He'll be able to offer] some financial contributions, infrastructure, grassroots support, and introduce some folks around to people who were helpful to him during his campaign."