The nation’s largest Tea Party group announced Tuesday morning that any Republican who votes in favor of immigration reform is in danger of facing a primary challenge in 2014.
“Like Obamacare, this bill is too massive, offers special-interest kickbacks and perks, has no measurable or enforceable border security. No one has had time to read what’s in it, and the final Senate vote will likely happen under cover of darkness,” said Jenny Beth Martin, national coordinator for Tea Party Patriots. “Did the Senate learn nothing from the 2010 shellacking?”
But the big question as the 2014 primary season approaches is whether the Tea Party still has the old firepower. Although the movement has sent a host of conservative Republicans to Congress, it did so mostly by defeating establishment Republicans for open seats in primaries, and in the process, handed a handful of victories to Democrats in seats that should have stayed in Republican hands.
In 2010, the Tea Party ousted longtime conservative Utah Sen. Bob Bennett and South Carolina Rep. Bob Inglis just as the movement was gaining steam. In 2012, three more incumbent members of the House went down to defeat, as did longtime Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar.
“To defeat an incumbent, you have to have a real operation in place. There is time for challenges to develop. I don’t think we have crossed the line of inevitability,” said Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the Rothenberg Political Report. But he added: “It depends on the race. It depends on the district. It depends on how much outside groups are going to come and help. There is potential. The Tea Party has shown some power, but it is too early in the cycle to declare their success or defeat.
Operatives, donors, and allies of the GOP establishment say they have fortified themselves against any surprises in 2014. And a number of the outside groups that have bankrolled past challengers from the far right have declined to get involved in the immigration fight.
The Tea Partiers also may not have a big-enough target this time around. In an interview, Martin named the four GOP members of the Gang of Eight as particular targets, but only one of them is up for reelection in 2014. That would be Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a longtime object of conservative ire and someone Martin said the group “already knew was a squish.”
Just two other of the 15 Republicans who voted for a border-security bill on Monday crucial to passage of immigration reform are up in 2014—Susan Collins of Maine and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.
Graham was named a top target by the fiscally conservative Club for Growth as long ago as last year, but most political observers in South Carolina see him as being in a fairly strong position heading into 2014. Graham has more than $4 million in his campaign coffers, and a March poll gave him a 71 percent approval rating among Republicans there. And although last month Matt Kibbe of FreedomWorks said Graham is “begging for a primary challenge,” so far only Bruce Carroll, a founder of the gay Republican group GOProud, has explored a primary challenge. Carroll’s affiliation with GOProud, which has been snubbed by the American Conservative Union and others, would likely make rallying around him in socially conservative South Carolina hard for Tea Party types.
In Tennessee, the Chattanooga Times Free Press published an editorial last month under the headline “Clamoring for a Conservative Challenge to Alexander.” The editors called the second-term senator a “Republican in Name Only” (a "RINO") and listed a number of apostasies, including votes for the 2008 bank bailout and the 2012 fiscal-cliff deal. “Almost any other conservative with a pulse would be a welcomed improvement over Alexander,” the editors wrote.
But again, although there have been rumblings of Tea Party favorites—with discernible heartbeats—running against Alexander, no one serious has emerged. Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett is thought to be interested, but he has been dogged by a messy divorce last year, with his wife alleging he was “guilty of inappropriate marital conduct,” and some campaign-finance irregularities. The other name often mentioned against Alexander is Glenn Jacobs, better known as the professional wrestling star Kane, a Tennessean who has been blogging on Tea Party websites.
“People trust Lamar,” said one top Tennessee political consultant. “You can’t beat somebody with nobody, and right now the Tea Party has nobody. He is not going to get Lugar-ized.”
In Maine, meanwhile, recent polls have found that Susan Collins is one of the most popular senators in the country.
Even if the Tea Party were to field strong challenges against the three, whether their vote in the immigration debate will hurt them much remains far from certain.
According to Gonzales, one vote often isn’t enough to doom a career.
“The primaries tend to evolve based on perception and reputation, which are often not the culmination of one vote or one quote,” he said. “Not to say it’s not going to happen, but there is not a pattern of someone losing from one vote. It has more to do with Republicans not taking their race seriously.”
Martin, of Tea Party Patriots, would make no guarantees about 2014, saying instead that her group was focused on the IRS investigations into the financing of groups like hers.
But she added, “We don’t trust Congress to keep its word.”