A battle for control of the Republican Party has erupted as an emboldened Tea Party moved to oust senators who voted to reopen the government while business groups mobilized to defeat allies of the small-government movement.
“We are going to get engaged,” said Scott Reed, senior political strategist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “The need is now more than ever to elect people who understand the free market and not silliness.” The chamber spent $35.7 million on federal elections in 2012, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based group that tracks campaign spending.
Meanwhile, two Washington-based groups that finance Tea Party-backed candidates said they’re supporting efforts to defeat Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran, who voted this week for the measure ending the 16-day shutdown and avoiding a government debt default. Cochran, a Republican seeking a seventh term next year, faces a challenge in his party’s primary from Chris McDaniel, a state senator.
McDaniel, who announced his candidacy Thursday, “is not part of the Washington establishment and he has the courage to stand up to the big spenders in both parties,” Matt Hoskins, executive director of the Senate Conservatives Fund, said in a statement supporting him.
Cochran is at least the seventh Republican senator to face a primary in the 2014 midterms. The intra-party contests come as Republicans seek a net pickup of six seats to regain control of the 100-member chamber that they lost in the 2006 elections. Party leaders are also working to protect their majority in the U.S. House, where they have 232 members to the Democrats’ 200.
Those goals became more difficult after the Tea Party- aligned House and Senate Republicans embraced a plan tying government spending to defunding Obamacare. President Barack Obama and Senate Democrats rejected the proposal and had the power to stop it, and their partisan adversaries took the lion’s share of the blame for the impasse leading to the government shutdown that began Oct. 1.
The Republican Party’s favorability was at a record low of 28 percent in a Gallup Poll conducted Oct. 3-6. That was down 10 percentage points from the previous month and 15 points below Democrats. The Tea Party is less popular now than ever, according to a poll released Oct. 15 by the Pew Research Center. Forty-nine percent of U.S. adults have an unfavorable opinion of the movement, while 30 percent have a favorable one.
The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan Washington-based group that tracks races, changed the ratings of 15 U.S. House seats, all but one in favor of the prospects for Democrats. After three vacancies are filled in the 435-member House, Democrats are expected to need a net pickup of 17 seats to win back the majority they lost in the 2010 elections.
Both sides are using the Oct. 16 vote on a bipartisan agreement to reopen the government and lift the nation’s $16.7 trillion debt ceiling as a barometer for choosing their targets in next year’s elections.
In the Senate, 18 of 46 Republicans voted against the final deal. The opponents included Senators Mike Enzi of Wyoming, Pat Roberts of Kansas and John Cornyn of Texas, each of whom face primary contests. In the House, Republicans cast all the 144 votes opposing the accord.
“They voted ‘no’ because they understand this is a rallying cry” and that backing the agreement could be used against them, Tom Davis, a former National Republican Congressional Committee chairman and now director of federal government affairs for Deloitte Consulting, said in an interview. “This has not helped Republicans. It’s hurt the Republican brand.”
To improve their odds, Tea Party leaders are fine-tuning their strategy by targeting incumbents in states where Democrats have little or no chance of winning in the general election. In 2012 and 2010, the movement nominated weak or flawed Senate candidates in Indiana, Missouri, Delaware and Nevada who were defeated in the November general elections, dashing Republicans’ chances for taking over the chamber.
That’s part of the calculation in challenging Republican Senator Lamar Alexander in Tennessee, where no Democrats hold statewide office, said Michael Leahy, a Republican activist. State Representative Joe Carr announced in August he would run against Alexander in next year’s primary.
Leahy is helping to organize volunteers to knock on doors tomorrow in the state and urge voters to protest Alexander’s support for ending the Washington impasse by backing Carr.
“Whoever wins the primary in Tennessee is going to sail to victory,” Leahy said in an interview. “Democrats are anemic here.”
In addition to Cochran and Alexander, Republican senators who supported the agreement to re-open the government and face primary challenges include Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
“The strategy of primarying people like Thad Cochran is more of the same and it means more Senate minorities in the future,” said David French, the top lobbyist in Washington for the National Retail Federation. “I question the judgment there.”
French said the federation would back candidates in Republican primaries. Neither he nor Reed would specify which incumbents they’d support.
“There are incumbent Republicans who are on the wrong side of some of these issues,” said French, whose organization spent more than $300,000 on races in 2012. “There are definitely some incumbent Republicans we’re not going to support again.”
Joining the Senate Conservatives Fund in backing McDaniel’s primary challenge of Cochran is the Club for Growth, another Tea Party ally. The group’s super political action committee, Club for Growth Action, spent $17.9 million on federal races in 2012, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Senate Conservatives Fund spent $15.9 million in 2012 and $3.9 million so far on 2014 campaigns. The group, a political action committee founded by former South Carolina Republican Senator Jim DeMint, backed Republicans Rand Paul in Kentucky in 2010 and Ted Cruz in Texas in 2012 as each won Senate bids. McDaniel is the group’s first endorsement in the 2014 elections.
It’s too soon to know whether the boost the Tea Party- backed Senate candidates are anticipating will materialize, said Jennifer Duffy, who tracks Senate races for the Cook Report.
With the exception of Louisville investor Matt Bevin, who is spending his own money in his primary race against McConnell, “none of these other candidates are really serious yet,” Duffy said.
“It’s going to take a week or so to figure out how Tea Party voters feel about it,” Duffy said. “If they are angry, that could give some of these candidates momentum.”
Democrats are also looking to use the government shutdown battle to their political advantage.
Rickey Cole, the Democratic chairman in Mississippi, said a Republican civil war presents an opportunity. Cole is pitching party leaders in Washington to help in recruiting a candidate for the state’s Senate contest.
“Folks are returning my call, but everybody’s got to do a poll to decide which side of the bed to get out of,” Cole said in an interview. “This race could be a replay of what happened to Senator Lugar in Indiana.”
After 36 years in the Senate, Richard Lugar lost the Republican primary in Indiana last year to state Treasurer Richard Mourdock, who had Tea Party support. Mourdock went on to lose to Democrat Joe Donnelly in the general election.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which assists candidates, is attacking the Republican House members who are running for the Senate, saying they’re partly to blame for the unpopular shutdown.
Montana, West Virginia and Georgia Senate contests all feature Republican House members running for seats where incumbents are retiring. In Arkansas and Louisiana, Democratic senators are squaring off against House Republicans.
“Republicans are immeasurably damaged by this,” said the Democratic committee’s spokesman, Justin Barasky. “They repeatedly voted to keep the government shutdown. It highlights a recklessness and irresponsibility that all those candidates have.”
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