They arrived in January of 2011, unfamiliar with the ways of Washington, and promising never to adapt. The Republican freshman of the 112th Congress had helped take back the House, riding a Tea Party-infused, throw-the-bums-out wave of conservative disgust with career politicians.
But after three years in office and an election season looming, a number of GOP Congressmen find themselves facing scrappy challengers who say that they are now the ones with a serious case of Potomac Fever.
“I didn’t expect Renee to go this route,” said Frank Roche, a conservative Internet talk show host, who is challenging Renee Ellmers in North Carolina’s Second Congressional District. “I am sad she did. Unfortunately she has chosen to go along with the establishment in Washington D. C.”
Ellmers was a nurse and a Tea Party favorite when she emerged out of a crowded field in 2010, and went on to eke out a win against the Democratic incumbent. Then, she harped on the building of the so-called Ground Zero Mosque in New York in her campaign speeches, compared President Obama to Louis XIV and said that his administration is establishing a “socialistic form of government.”
Even in 2012, Roche counted himself as a supporter. But her backing of immigration reform convinced Roche to throw his own hat into the ring.
“I think that is a danger to our country.”
Plus, Roche added, since running as an outsider in 2010, Ellmers has cozied up to leadership.
That was a complaint heard again and again, from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to Florida’s Gulf Coast to points in between: The one-time Outsiders had gone inside, and for evidence just look to a House Republican leadership that was embracing the one-time radicals.
“There is only one person in my district more unpopular than Barack Obama, and that is John Boehner,” said Andrew McNeil, referring to the Speaker of the House.
McNeil is running against Larry Bucshon, a heart surgeon with no political experience when he ran for Congress in 2010 and made his lack of experience in electoral office an asset.
McNeil, a territory manager for a Midwestern coffee company, described himself as “just an ordinary father of seven home-schooled kids concerned about the state of our country.”
Bucshon, he said, “Is a huge John Boehner supporter. That’s why the speaker came down here and threw a huge fundraiser for him. He is always the first to leap to the leadership’s defense.”
To hear this new crop of primary challengers tell it, everything wrong in Washington stems from the fact that Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor and others in the nice offices on Capitol Hill are in charge. It’s why spending hasn’t been cut enough, why bad continuing resolutions keep getting passed, why the federal government is able to snoop in on phone calls in the name of national security, why Obamacare is the law of the land.
McNeil says that if he is elected he will not vote for Boehner for speaker.
“There is supposed to be an opposition party. And they are supposed to oppose,” he said.
The current crop of GOP primary challengers are a different group from those of 2010. For one thing, they don’t all call themselves members of the Tea Party, cognizant of both that group’s low popularity and the fact that in some cases their opponent remains close to many local tea party groups. And in some cases, these primary challengers are hitting their Republican opponents from the center, as is the case in Michigan where businessman Brian Ellis is running against libertarian-leaning Congressman Justin Amash on the grounds that he is not sufficiently friendly to the district’s business interests.
But still, across the country, there are a new crop of candidates running against members of Congress who have only been in office a term and a half, but are, these challengers say, not keeping to the values they proclaimed on the campaign trails a mere few years ago.
In some cases, no challenger has emerged, but local Tea Party activists are searching for one. There is a Facebook page that is, as it proclaims, “dedicated to finding, and supporting a Constitutional Conservative Primary challenger to run against Steve Southerland in 2014 for his House seat.” The words “Stop Amnesty” are splashed across the top. Southerland was a political neophyte who owned a string of funeral homes when he won his seat in 2010. In office, he has regularly bragged about how much he hates Washington, telling a Capitol Hill newspaper that, “When I go home on the weekends, and put on my flip-flops and my shorts and my John Deere hat, I go to Walmart. I don’t need to hear from a political prognosticator on what I need to do or how I need to do it. I go to Walmart.” But so far, Tea Party efforts to rid him of his burden have not produced a candidate. A similar looking page is devoted to defeating Sean Duffy, a former Real World reality TV star who votes with the Tea Party 87 percent of the time, by one scorecard (PDF).
In some cases, the campaign rhetoric of the candidates can be very similar to those Congress members they hope to replace. When he was running in 2010, Dan Benishek, a surgeon making his first run for office frequently stressed the need “to shrink the size and scope of our government to be in line with that envisioned by our founding fathers.” His opponent in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan district is Alan Arcand, a mechanic who has never held elective office either, and who at his kickoff campaign speech, asked the dozen or so people who came, “What do you think Thomas Jefferson would say about a new health care law forcing an individual mandate on the people? What would Benjamin Franklin say about the NSA spying on innocent Americans? What would George Washington say about our dependence on foreign oil?”
When Billy Long, an auctioneer, ran for Congress in 2010, he stressed his outsider status and that he had never held elected office. Now, his opponent, Greg Payne, an attorney in Carthage, Missouri, says that Long “has become part of the Washington DC culture and forgotten what he came there to do.” He pointed to a recent report showing that Long was one of Congress’ most well-travelled members.
“Farmers farm because they love to get their hands dirty and they take pride in the corn they grow and the cattle they raise. You have to be up to your elbows in that. You can’t be a part-time legislator,” he said, adding that Long has never been able to voice in his two terms in office “our constitutional first principles.”
A major principle of the early Tea Party protests was that lawmakers had grown too distant from their constituents. As this second wave of Tea Party primaries gets under way, it remains an oft-heard complaint.
Michael Uminski, who is retired and running against Rich Nugent, a former sheriff in central Florida, has promised an open-door policy at his home and to be more accessible than the incumbent.
“I don’t wear a suit, OK? I mean, I would have to wear suits, but you have to relate back to the people, and these politicians can’t relate to the people.”
Nugent has endeared himself to national Tea Party leaders by introducing a national concealed carry law, but Uminski says it is not enough.
“He shows no cojones. He should call the president an outright liar. And John Boehner too. He doesn’t scare me neither. I think they are all scared of their shadow.”