The Take
By Dan Balz
Sunday, March 2, 2014

The tea party movement celebrated its fifth anniversary this past week, but there’s been little to celebrate lately about the performance of some of the conservatives running under the tea party banner who have mounted primary challenges to half a dozen Senate Republicans.

In Texas, a poll by the University of Texas and the Texas Tribune showed Sen. John Cornyn running away from Rep. Steve Stockman, 62 percent to 16 percent. Their primary will be Tuesday. At this point, the challenge to the incumbent looks like a big fizzle — to no one’s surprise.

In Kentucky, businessman Matt Bevin, the tea party candidate challenging Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, has been trying to square his praise for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) in late 2008 with claims that he would have opposed the TARP program — which McConnell supported — had he been in the Senate at the time.

In Kansas, Milton Wolf, a radiologist who is trying to unseat Sen. Pat Roberts, had to apologize this past week after the Topeka Capital-Journal reported that he had posted X-rays of gunshot wounds on his Facebook page a few years ago and then made jokes about them.

In Mississippi, state Sen. Chris McDaniel, who is trying to defeat Sen. Thad Cochran, has had a rocky time after recently telling Politico’s Alex Burns that he wasn’t sure whether he would have voted in Congress for Katrina relief funds after the 2005 storm devastated his state. “That’s not an easy vote to cast,” he told Burns.

The outcome of the challenges to these incumbent Republican senators (and two others in South Carolina and Tennessee who also face challenges) will be one measure of the balance of power inside a party divided between its establishment and insurgent wings.

The tea party movement continues to have a significant effect on the Republican Party, pro and con. Without its energy, it is questionable whether Republicans would have made such large gains in 2010. But after a series of misfires with tea party candidates who proved not ready for prime time in the past two elections, and because of the unhappiness over the tea party’s role in helping force the partial shutdown of the government last fall, the GOP establishment has decided to fight back.

The tea party challengers hope to tap into the grass-roots anger on the right against both Washington careerism and the party’s congressional leadership. At an earlier time, many of them would have scratched for resources to mount serious challenges. Today they can look for help from an array of outside conservative groups (some more effective than others) such as the Senate Conservatives Fund, the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks, the Madison Project, the Tea Party Patriots, Tea Party Nation or the Tea Party Express.

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