Which Politicians Are in the Tea Party's Crosshairs?

Far-right Republicans are foiling the GOP establishment’s hunt for electable candidates.

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call, via Getty

One by one, they have fallen. Bob Bennett in Utah. Richard Lugar in Indiana. Mike Castle in Delaware. Longtime pols, all of them, with long records in the halls of power, or handpicked by national leaders to run for office. And one by one, they and others found their profiles as electable lawmakers with the record to prove it used as a cudgel against them by Tea Party activists determined to purge the Republican Party of any kind of wishy-washy moderation.

In 2010 it was an aberration. By 2012 it was a trend. And now that the 2014 elections are around the corner, the GOP machine has finally said enough, and enlisted Karl Rove and others to end the trend of far-right-wingers knocking off establishment-friendly candidates in Republican primaries. Those revolutionaries, you see, turned out to be weak general-election opponents against Democrats, and so the revolution was costing the GOP seats in statehouses and the Senate that were rightly theirs.

But revolutionaries have a tendency not to go down quietly, so when word leaked of Rove’s plan the Tea Party swung quickly into action, denouncing the machine for meddling and vowing to keep the heat on the establishment. Now the family dispute is threatening to turn into a full-scale civil war, playing out in states from Maine to Alaska. As the battle drums beat louder and louder, we scout out the field.


Mark Begich squeaked past longtime Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens in this deepest of red states in 2008, and GOPers have been eyeing him ever since as a primary pick-up opportunity. Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell has been exploring a run, but when he won his current seat he did so despite the Conservative Patriots Group, a local Tea Party outfit, withdrawing their support over his endorsement of incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski. She had to run as an independent after getting knocked off in a primary by Sarah Palin–favorite Joe Miller, who has advocated killing the Department of Education and Medicaid and opposes abortion even in cases of rape or incest. On his website, Miller recently published a blog post that compared Treadwell with Mitt Romney and accused him of (gasp!) believing that climate change is real.


If the Republican civil war were really on a battle field, a look at Georgia would make it seem like the rebels were already closing in on a victory. As in Virginia, the Tea Party already grabbed a scalp here in the heart of Dixie when two-term Sen. Saxby Chambliss announced to his supporters that he was looking forward to “sitting on a back porch drinking whisky with some of y’all.” That prospect, enticing as it sounds, probably started looking a lot better after Chambliss became the first Republican to break with Grover Norquist and his no-new-taxes-ever pledge. His efforts to lead the party out of the Latino wilderness by pushing for immigration reform likely didn’t endear him to the base either. Now that Chambliss has thrown his hat out of the ring, the race to replace him looks like Congressman Paul Broun, who proudly touts that he was the first member of Congress to call Barack Obama “a socialist who embraces Marxist-Leninist policies,” and Rep. Phil Gingrey, who once defended Todd Akin as being “partly right” on the question of legitimate rape, facing off Rep. Tom Price, a Paul Ryan ally who is firmly in the Karl Rove camp. That said, the GOP could nominate Genghis Khan and still hold the seat over the Democrats.


As in Georgia, this was over before it started, when Congressman Tom Latham announced he would not run in the race to replace retiring Democrat Tom Harkin. This left Rep. Steve King as the last Republican standing. The six-term congressman has become Rove’s least favorite problem child, mainly for his comments through the years suggesting that racial profiling is actually a good thing, that Islamic radicals would be heartened by an Obama victory, and comparing illegal immigrants to dogs. He had kind words for Todd Akin too, and as such Rove’s group fingered him as precisely the kind of candidate they are hoping to avoid getting saddled with. King being King, he countered Rove’s attacks with attacks of his own, accusing the operative of launching “a crusade against me” in an appeal to supporters in which he painted himself as the only thing standing between the Tea Party and annihilation. It appears, however, that the establishment is out of luck on this one too, making life much easier for Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley.


It will not matter much in the end who the Republican nominee in Kansas is, since whoever it is has an advantage that would make even a Georgian GOPer blush. Still, it could be more than a little embarrassing to the party establishment if the radicals run Pat Roberts out of town. The 78-year-old routinely tops 60 percent in his match-ups with Democrats, and has garnered a quiet respect on Capitol Hill for his work on the intelligence committee. His fellow Kansan senator, Jerry Moran, the National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman, has close Tea Party ties and has pledged to keep Roberts free of a primary challenge, even as some Kansas conservatives fret that he is too wobbly on immigration. Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who was the intellectual spearhead behind Arizona’s strict immigration laws, has announced that he won’t answer the pleas of the Tea Party to challenge Roberts, but Tim Huelskamp, who was banished from his committee in the House for goading Speaker John Boehner, still might.


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All of the focus in the Bluegrass State has been on whether or not actress Ashley Judd will be the Democratic nominee against Sen. Mitch McConnell, but first the Senate Majority Leader may have to dispatch a challenge from within his own party. Matthew Bevin, a businessman from Louisville has been meeting with Tea Party activists who blame McConnell for presiding over an upper chamber that they view as being profligate with their tax dollars. Bevin is a long shot, to be sure, but there is a precedent here—in 2010, the establishment rallied around Secretary of State Trey Grayson, who got walloped by Rand Paul after the libertarian heartthrob labeled his opponent a career politician who secretly pined for Bill Clinton. Paul and McConnell have made peace, but since the Senate minority leader also has to keep Washington from exploding, an opponent from the right will provide an opening.


Susan Collins, the centrist Republican incumbent, should be safe. But Maine’s politics have been so weird lately that who is to know what the future will hold. In 2012 Collins’s fellow liberal Republican Olympia Snowe decided she'd had enough of the braying of extremists within her party and didn’t seek reelection. An independent, Angus King, went on to win and to caucus with the Democrats. Paul LePage, an ultra-right-winger, occupies the governor’s mansion. Enter Bruce Poliquin, a former state treasurer who has previously lost Senate and gubernatorial primaries despite the backing of Freedom Works, the Koch Brothers–funded super PAC. No serious Democrat has stepped forward, mainly because Collins is so formidable in a general election. A Poliquin win in the primary on the other hand could flip this seat Democratic.


Once Rove’s man took a dive in Iowa, it made the Land of 10,000 Lakes ground zero for the question of how much control the establishment has over the rank and file. First-term Sen. Al Franken eked out a victory in 2008 and has kept a relatively low-profile since. He will be the favorite in 2014, but a mainstream candidate like John Kline—who has been blasted as a RINO in some quarters—could give him a competitive race. Michele Bachmann, who has accused Barack Obama of having “anti-American views” and who has called for investigations into whether or not the Muslim Brotherhood is infiltrating the upper reaches of the U.S. government, is thought to be taking a long look at the race, much to Rove’s consternation and Franken’s relief.


Carl Levin would have cruised to an easy win if the 78-year-old hadn’t announced this week that he was hanging up his Senate spikes. This state is fairly solidly blue, and in 2012, the GOP nominated Michele Bachmann–favorite Pete Hoekstra, who got in trouble early on when his campaign ran an ad featuring an Asian-American actress speaking in pidgin English and riding a bike through a rice paddy. The Michigan Republicans could make the same mistake this time around if they pick Justin Amash as their candidate. The two-term congressman has been called a “wacko bird” by no less than John McCain and was stripped of his committee assignments by House Speaker John Boehner for essentially voting no on everything. There is a handful of other Republican congressmen from the Wolverine State who would give whoever emerges from the Democratic side a better run.


Democrat Max Baucus has represented this fairly red state since 1979 in no small part due to some ineptitude on the GOP’s part. In 2002 Republican candidate Mike Taylor dropped out of the race after the Democrats unearthed some footage of an ad for the cosmetology school he once ran; Taylor said the ad was designed to make him look like a gay hairdresser. In 2008 Baucus drew a perennial candidate who had previously run against him on the Green Party line. This time around, a moderate Republican like Jeff Essmann, the president of the Montana Senate, or former state lawmaker Corey Stapleton could make it a race. But knowing Baucus, he will likely draw Champ Edmunds, dubbed “The Craziest Candidate of the 2014 Election Cycle” by the liberal blog the Daily Kos for suggesting that schoolteachers be armed and comparing illegal immigrants to a burglar breaking into a home.


The Cornhusker State is yet another example of the Machine Team walking off the field just as the Tea Partiers are running out of the tunnel. Mike Johanns, a mild-mannered first-term former Bush administration Agriculture secretary decided last month he didn’t have the stomach for another election season. His blasting of former Sen. Jim DeMint—a Tea Party favorite—for getting involved in a Nebraska Senate race, one where Johanns’s establishment pick went down to defeat at the hands of a candidate backed by DeMint, didn't help, nor did his recent vote to extend the debt ceiling. The seat is unlikely to go to a Democrat, and both Gov. Dave Heineman and Rep. Jeff Fortenberry are considered within the mainstream of the Republican Party. And so both are of course reviled by the right—Heineman for asking for more stimulus funds and Fortenberry for refusing to sign Grover Norquist’s anti-tax pledge. Congressman Adrian Smith, on the other hand, has won the American Conservative Union award as one of the group’s favorite House members and has fought against bans on discrimination based on sexual orientation. Peter Ricketts, the son of Joe Ricketts, the Chicago businessman who gained notoriety for contemplating running a series of ads tying Barack Obama to Jeremiah Wright, is considering a run.

North Carolina

One-term Democrat Kay Hagan has been eyed as one of the Republicans top pickup opportunities, and recent polls give her a slight lead over Reps. Patrick McHenry and Renee Ellmers, both of whom ran with Tea Party support but have achieved the ire of their onetime allies for supposed apostasies. Neither has shown much interest in the race. Early polling has shown that the GOP rank-and file’s favorite candidate is Virginia Foxx, an arch conservative who has called the TARP bailout a “tar baby” and who suggested that Matthew Shepherd’s death by anti-gay bigots was a “hoax.” Tea Party activist Greg Brannon has already declared and is out campaigning.

South Carolina

As far as right-wingers in South Carolina are concerned, Sen. Lindsey Graham is a cross between Tokyo Rose and Chairman Mao. Where to begin? The two-term senator believes climate change is real, that the deficit should be closed partially through higher taxes, has pushed for immigration reform, has said that the Tea Party will “die out,” and has achieved bottom-of-the barrel rankings from conservative anti-tax group the Club for Growth. But it looks like Graham may have dodged a tea bag this time around. A shrewd politico, he knows how to throw enough red meat at the GOP faithful, such as by beating the drum on Benghazi or resisting further restrictions on guns, that he may have cooled some of the anger. Plus, when Tea Party favorite Jim DeMint retired to run the Heritage Foundation, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley appointed Tim Scott as a replacement, thus removing Graham’s highest-profile challenge.


See McConnell, Kentucky. John Cornyn, the No. 2 man on the Senate minority, was recently rated the second-most conservative member of the upper chamber. The primary objection to the two-term senator is that as the former head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, he backed establishment lawmakers against their fringe challengers. Well, now the fringe is getting its payback. Eric Wyatt, an Iraq War veteran and Tea Party favorite, has already begun campaigning, describing himself as a very big constitutional conservative who believes “we have our God-given rights.” Others are likely to follow suit, including Attorney General Greg Abbott, who made noise recently trying to lure New York small-business owners frustrated with labor protections to move their operations to the Lone Star State. State Sen. Dan Patrick, who introduced a bill allowing abortion in Texas and wants the state to adopt Arizona’s harsh anti-immigration policies, is also thought to be looking at a run. It would take a very popular Democrat to beat even a Tea Party type in the general election, and so far none has emerged.

West Virginia

As soon as 75-year-old Jay Rockefeller announced his retirement, Republican Congresswoman Shelly Moore Capito announced that she was running for his seat. And no sooner did she announce than the fiscal hardliners at the Club for Growth announced that she was the wrong person for the job, and mocked the “GOP establishment” for warning against “‘divisive’ primary challenges.” Tea Partiers in West Virginia are trying to recruit Bill Mahoney, a wealthy drilling executive who came out of nowhere to win a gubernatorial primary in 2011, only to lose in the general election to a Democrat. The state has been trending sharply red over the years, but establishment types are pointing to that race as a cause for concern if the right candidate doesn’t emerge.

Governor’s Races

The rightest wing of the GOP is far less of a threat to establishment Republicans in the various statehouses across the country, mainly because most of the Republicans up in 2014 were first elected riding the Tea Party wave of 2010—Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Paul LePage of Maine, and John Kasich of Ohio. Still, once in office, onetime campaign-trail extremists have a tendency to move to the center and could face a backlash.


Rick Scott was a conservative icon when he ran in 2010, mainly for his vow to dismantle Obamacare and his call for a total ban on embryonic stem cell research. Now he is adding more environmental regulations, has accepted Obamacare’s expansion of Medicare eligibility, and is raising teacher salaries. As The New York Times reported, a local Tea Party group recently sent him a “break-up note,” and National Review said that Scott is heading for a brick wall called political reality. No Republican has emerged, but if Scott is engaged in a long and expensive primary race, the seat could flip back to the Democrats.


Keystone Gov. Tom Corbett is suffering from dangerously low approval ratings, and Democrats have been eyeing this seat for a while. Their job looks like it may get easier now that it appears as if Corbett will face a primary challenge from Montgomery County District Attorney Bruce Castor. But this race flips the script a bit, since Castor is largely seen as a moderate in the mold of Arlen Specter, and Corbett’s plan to scale back both taxes and the size of government—not to mention women’s access to birth control—have backfired with independents in Pennsylvania.


The intra-Republican civil war has already seen its first casualty: Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling decided not to seek the nomination for governor. The Virginia GOP ruled last year that they would hold a nominating convention rather than a contested primary. Bolling, a popular moderate who took a pass on running in 2009 to throw his support behind current term-limited Gov. Bob McDonnell, dropped out again, since most of the conventioneers support Ken Cuccinelli. The commonwealth’s attorney general represents some of the furthest right reaches of the party, including a stated skepticism of climate change and a belief that Medicare and Social Security make “people dependent on government.” Bolling has not ruled out running as an independent, which would likely provide a big boost to Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe.