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Tea Partyers Will Test Strength

Conservatives Seek to Nominate Two of Their Favorites in Senate Primaries in Nebraska, Texas

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
From left: Sens. Jim DeMint, Rand Paul and Mike Lee are among the most prominent Washington politicians attempting to assist conservative tea party candidates across the country.

As Washington’s tea party class endeavors to rekindle the movement’s magic, this month’s Texas Republican Senate primary stands as a crucial test of its strength and influence.

The effort might backfire in Nebraska, where GOP Sens. Jim DeMint (S.C.) and Rand Paul (Ky.) and conservative organizations including the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks have been stumping for state Treasurer Don Stenberg in Tuesday’s three-way GOP Senate primary. Stenberg could finish dead last, his standing with voters diminished by the barrage of negative television ads that the supportive, Washington-based tea-party-affiliated groups and Members have run against his opponents.  

But buoyed by Richard Mourdock’s Republican primary victory last week over Sen. Dick Lugar in Indiana, the Washington, D.C., tea party community has set its sights on the crowded May 29 GOP Senate nominating contest in Texas. There, the D.C. tea party crowd hopes to push former state Solicitor General Ted Cruz over heavily favored Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who has the backing of many Texas-based conservatives. How Cruz finishes could help determine their strength in upcoming primaries.

“Nobody likes to back losers, and the DeMint team has to fear the loss of financial support if they cost us more Senate races,” said a K Street Republican who complimented conservatives for backing Cruz and Mourdock but argued that they blew it with Stenberg. “The [Republican] establishment is prepared to fight back. We are not going to nominate sure losers like in Delaware and Nevada last cycle.”

In 2009 and 2010, several upstart GOP Congressional candidates moved to challenge not just Democrats but also establishment-backed Republicans running in open-seat primaries. Many exhibited surprising strength, and in doing so, attracted the support of the budding grass-roots tea party movement and restless conservatives inside the Beltway. In Washington, the tea party class has attempted to re-create the 2010 political dynamic.

However, absent the organic rise of strong GOP primary candidates similar to now-Sens. Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), Ron Johnson (Wis.), Mike Lee (Utah) and Marco Rubio (Fla.), they have tried to recruit and build them up. Success has been limited. Mourdock is considered solid, but he had trouble raising money until the Club for Growth became fully involved in Indiana. In fact, Mourdock’s victory is attributed as much to Lugar’s lack of preparation for the campaign as to the support he received from Washington conservatives.

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