The Tea Party may not be knocking off incumbents, but it doesn’t appear to be losing any ground within the GOP.
So while conservatives weren’t able to claim any more establishment scalps this 2014 primary cycle to place on the mantelpiece next to Eric Cantor or Richard Lugar, they didn’t suffer any significant losses or real backlash from the pro-business wing of the Republican Party.
The big target on the right Tuesday was Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, who faced a challenge from Milton Wolf, a suburban Kansas City radiologist who first gained fame for being Barack Obama’s conservative second cousin. While the most serious Tea Party groups, such as Club for Growth, never played in the race, Wolf got endorsements from the Senate Conservatives Fund and the right-wing personalities Mark Levin and Erick Erickson. The challenger ran a race straight out of the Tea Party playbook, attacking Roberts for not being a real resident of Kansas and for being too liberal.
But Wolf’s campaign was never able to catch fire with conservatives. The doctor’s efforts suffered a setback when it was discovered he had been posting macabre X-rays on his personal Facebook page. It didn’t help that the ongoing Senate primary in Mississippi, where litigation is continuing, captured most of the attention of national conservatives. Wolf’s biggest problem, though, might have been that Roberts remained focused on issues that played well back home, unlike other Republicans whom conservatives allege have “gone Washington.” While longtime Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar spent his time on nuclear proliferation and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor focused on raising money for the GOP, Roberts kept a much lower profile and focused on national security and agricultural issues. Both topics played well in a rural state with several major military bases.
Roberts ended up winning a narrow but decisive victory Tuesday, by a margin of 48 percent to 41 percent. Two other minor Tea Party candidates got the remaining votes, as the underfunded and unimpressive Wolf surprisingly managed to hold a three-term incumbent to less than 50 percent.
In Michigan, the GOP establishment had long been salivating over the prospect of taking down second-term Rep. Justin Amash but came up short. Amash, whom one GOP congressional colleague recently described as “al Qaeda’s best friend in the Congress,” was outspent by his opponent, businessman Brian Ellis. In addition, Ellis was backed by seemingly every group in the traditional Republican coalition, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Michigan Farm Bureau, and Michigan Right to Life. But that wasn’t enough.
Despite the target on his back, Amash had become a libertarian phenomenon. One of the few millennials serving on Capitol Hill, the 34-year-old congressman explains every vote on his Facebook page and is deeply associated with the Rand Paul wing of the GOP. The congressman was able to ride those credentials to a comfortable 57 percent to 43 percent victory over Ellis.
The Tea Party wing of the GOP did suffer one casualty on Tuesday, as first-term Rep. Kerry Bentivolio lost to foreclosure lawyer David Trott in his suburban Michigan district. However, while Trott spent $2.4 million of his own money and had overwhelming establishment support, including the endorsements of both the Chamber and Mitt Romney, Tea Party groups did nothing for Bentivolio, whom many considered an “accidental congressman.” The result was that the colorful incumbent was vastly outspent and lost by more than 30 points.
Tuesday also featured a few other elections that held mild drama for conservatives. In Kansas’s 1st District, right-wing firebrand Tim Huelskamp held off a surprise challenge from little-known opponent Alan LaPolice by a margin of 55 percent to 44 percent. The closeness of the race came as a surprise to almost all observers, and it’s likely Huelskamp’s opposition to the Farm Bill and renewable fuel standards cost him in his conservative agricultural district. The other, bigger challenge was the comeback attempt of former Rep. Todd Tiahrt against his successor, Mike Pompeo, in Kansas’s 4th District. Tiahrt, who gave up the seat in a failed 2010 bid for U.S. Senate, tried to present himself as the more centrist candidate against his opponent, who was backed by the Club for Growth and the Koch brothers. He fell short, losing by a margin of 63 percent to 37 percent.
Although these aren’t the last primaries of the year—there is a longshot Tea Party candidate trying to unseat Sen. Lamar Alexander in Tennessee on Thursday—they essentially cap an election cycle in which the GOP has been struggling with an identity crisis. The party doesn’t seem to know quite what it is and what it will become in the post-Obama era. After years of Republicans running against Obamacare and the threat of big government, any role for the public sector in the economy has become anathema to parts of the GOP, as once anodyne issues such as the Export-Import Bank and the renewable fuels standard have become deeply divisive issues within the party.
The 2014 primary cycle did nothing to resolve this debate. Instead, for better or for worse, it preserved the status quo within the GOP and left its internal conflicts unresolved for the 2016 presidential primary.