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Roll Call

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.

In Texas’ Cruz, who is ethnically Cuban, the D.C. tea party community sees another Rubio. But where Rubio steadily moved from heavy underdog in his primary against a sitting governor to strong favorite, raising vast sums of money, Cruz has struggled. Dewhurst remains the candidate to beat, and some Texas Republicans say Cruz would be a nonentity if not for the support he’s received from Washington, D.C., although they concede he might yet win the primary.

“Cruz does not have the funds to compete himself. If not for the outside groups, no one would even know who he is. He is 100 percent propped up by outside groups,” said a Republican strategist monitoring the Texas Senate primary. “A large amount of dough on TV helps Cruz; a large amount coming in to whack Dewhurst keeps the runoff in play.”

If the winner of the May 29 primary doesn’t crack 50 percent of the vote, the top two finishers will proceed to a July 31 runoff. If the race heads to a runoff, either Cruz or former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert are considered the likely candidates to join the lieutenant governor in round two of the primary.

Cruz’s Washington backers dispute charges that he would be a weak candidate without their help. But many Republicans watching this contest say his prospects depend on how forcefully they support him. Strategically, organizations like the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks and DeMint’s Senate Conservatives Fund political action committee have to consider the cost of advertising in Texas’ 20 media markets and weigh jumping now versus playing in the runoff, figuring that the crowded primary will keep Dewhurst below 50 percent.

Advertising in the Houston and Dallas/Fort Worth markets alone can cost $1.2 million per week, and outside groups are often charged 20 percent to 25 percent more.

The Senate Conservatives Fund, viewing the initial campaign as the heavier lift, is likely to use its resources to help get Cruz into the runoff, where it feels he will have a good chance of beating Dewhurst. The runoff has been part of the Club for Growth’s ad-spending calculation all along in Texas. After an initial ad buy in January, the club re-entered the Texas market last week with a $1 million ad buy slamming Dewhurst.

“We knew when we got involved in this race that it would be very expensive,” Club for Growth spokesman Barney Keller said. “Ted Cruz is worth it.”

In Nebraska, the topsoil has been shifting — but not in Stenberg’s favor. State Attorney General Jon Bruning has been considered the establishment favorite and likely nominee for months. But he has stumbled at times. Cornhusker Republicans conclude he will probably win, but it will not be the blowout many were expecting. At the same time, many now predict that state Sen. Deb Fischer will pass Stenberg and finish second.

The club has pummeled Bruning with negative advertising, and the state attorney general has retaliated. But one Nebraska Republican insider said Stenberg’s apparent inability to fund positive ads to balance out the negative spots being run on his behalf has damaged his image with GOP primary voters. Stenberg, a perennial Senate candidate, has not raised much money to support his bid. Further hurting Stenberg, potentially, is the Club for Growth’s poor reputation in Nebraska, although the club disputes this.

The Bruning and Stenberg campaigns, and their outside supporters, have bloodied each other to the point where Fischer, originally an afterthought in this primary, has risen. For the balance of the campaign until now, she lagged behind the others in fundraising and in garnering attention. Republican operatives tied to the GOP establishment in Washington contend that if Stenberg finishes third, it will be a serious blight on the credibility of DeMint and groups like the Club for Growth.

A GOP strategist aligned with Fischer said last week he believes the last-minute Bruning advertising that has hit Fischer is an indication of her growing strength.

“Until today, I didn’t think she had a chance in hell,” he said.

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