Outcomes in the Indiana, Texas and Nebraska Republican primaries are raising the odds that South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint will move closer to remaking the ranks of U.S. Senate Republicans in the image of the anti-tax Tea Party-dominated House caucus.
Texas Republican Ted Cruz, who was backed by the Tea Party movement, this week forced Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst into a July runoff for an open Senate seat. On May 8, Indiana State Treasurer Richard Mourdock toppled incumbent Senator Richard Lugar, who was criticized in the Republican primary for compromising with Democrats.
In Nebraska, Republican state Senator Deb Fischer -- whose backers include Tea Party favorite Sarah Palin -- defeated Attorney General Jon Bruning on May 15 for the Republican Senate nomination and leads former Democratic Senator Bob Kerrey in polls of the race for the open seat.
Democrats see the Indiana results as improving their prospects in November, similar to the dynamics in the 2010 midterms when some Tea Party-backed candidates stumbled in the general election. Whether the Democrats can extend that advantage elsewhere remains to be seen this cycle, because the Republican candidates are more seasoned and most of the races will take place in states with histories of favoring their party.
What is clear is that even a handful of November victories in these states will empower DeMint and his growing anti-tax-and-spending caucus in pressing Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, on such issues as a balanced budget amendment and resisting compromises with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat.
“The new conservatives have already had an enormous impact on the Senate,” DeMint said in an e-mail. “With a few more conservative reinforcements like Ted Cruz, Richard Mourdock, and others, we have a chance to really turn the tide so we can repeal ObamaCare and balance the budget.”
The Tea Party claimed 28 House seats in the 2010 midterm congressional election, and those members helped pressure Republican Speaker John Boehner of Ohio to refuse to accept a series of spending cut proposals in exchange for raising the nation’s debt limit -- a showdown that brought the government to the brink of shutdown in July 2011.
In the Senate, DeMint in 2010 used his Senate Conservatives Fund political action committee to assist the campaigns of five newcomers including Rand Paul of Kentucky, Marco Rubio of Florida and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania.
DeMint’s favorites have been eager to take on Senate leadership. Paul, son of Republican presidential candidate and Texas Representative Ron Paul, has held up bills for weeks by filing amendments and filibustering on issues including aid to Egypt and federal education legislation.
An infusion of new allies could pay even more dividends given who they will replace, said DeMint. Republican Senators Lugar, Olympia Snowe of Maine and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, who are all exiting, often worked with Democrats.
“If people on the far left have a principle they want to stand by, they should never compromise. Those of us on the right should not either,” Mourdock said May 9 in a CNN interview. “Compromise may come in the finer details of a plan or a budget.”
“We are at the point where one side or the other will win this argument,” he added. “One side or the other will dominate.”
Change From 2010
Many of the new faces are vying for seats expected to stay under Republican control, as in Texas. That’s a change from two years ago, when Tea Party-backed Republicans Christine O’Donnell of Delaware, who once said she’d dabbled in witchcraft, and Sharron Angle of Nevada lost Senate races where Democratic-held seats appeared vulnerable. Those defeats helped Democrats maintain a majority in the chamber.
The Tea Party also sees a strong opportunity in the Arizona Senate primary for retiring Republican Jon Kyl’s seat. Representative Jeff Flake, backed by the anti-tax Club for Growth, leads competitor Wil Cardon 42 percent to 20 percent, and he also has a 13-point edge over the Democratic contender, Richard Carmona, according to a May 17-20 Public Policy Polling survey.
In Indiana, Democrats say the primary results are creating a better environment for them to pick up Lugar’s seat. President Barack Obama won the state in 2008 and polls show Mourdock locked in a close race with the Democratic nominee, Representative Joe Donnelly.
“Indiana’s a big win” for Democratic hopes in the race, said Jennifer Duffy, a Senate analyst with Cook Political Report. “I don’t see others that have that potential at this point.”
Still, Democrats are monitoring a four-way Republican primary in Wisconsin, where former Governor Tommy Thompson is being targeted by the Tea Party groups in a fight for an open Senate seat a Democrat is giving up, said Duffy.
The Tea Party’s Senate focus is evident in the lack of House primary challenges.
Of the 187 House Republican incumbents who faced primaries this year, 176 of them won, according to the National Republican Congressional Committee. Of those who didn’t, six opted to run for the Senate, four lost in member-to-member primaries because of newly drawn districts, and one -- Jean Schmidt of Ohio --lost to a challenger with Tea Party support.
“The bang for your buck is in the Senate, not in the House,” said Michael McDonald, an associate government professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. “It’s much more of a freewheeling environment and, with the filibuster, you don’t even need a majority in order to have a sizable effect.”
It takes 60 votes in the 100-member Senate to end a filibuster, or an unlimited debate, that can stall legislative action.
Brendan Steinhauser, federal and state campaigns director with FreedomWorks, an organization started by former House Republican Leader Dick Armey of Texas and an ally of the Tea Party movement, said his group is training activists in phone banking, polling and door-to-door outreach in Texas and Indiana.
DeMint’s fundraising complements the grassroots effort.
In the 2010 election cycle, the Senate Conservatives Fund raised $9.3 million, more than the leadership PACs of all other senators and congressmen. This cycle, DeMint said his goal is to raise more than $10 million to “replace incumbent Democrats with conservative Republicans.”
The Texas legislature could provide a glimpse of where the Tea Party may take the Republican Party on the national level. While Texas House Speaker Joe Straus won his race in the May 29 primary, Tea Party-backed candidates ousted three of his allies, including Representative Rob Eissler, a nine-year incumbent who is chairman of the Public Education Committee.
The results leave many Republican lawmakers in Texas “wide-eyed and frightened,” said Calvin Jillson, who teaches political science at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “They survived this time, but they have to wonder, what about 2014 and elections down the road?”