Ted Cruz and Donald Trump have demonstrated anew to conservatives how to take on — and defeat — the GOP establishment. If they’re not careful, Republicans might soon feel the consequences of their victories beyond the presidential race.
The unprecedented early success of the Texas senator and billionaire businessman in Iowa and New Hampshire might spark a transformation in a year’s-worth of Republican House and Senate primaries, threatening to transform a sleepy slate of contests into ones that recall the pitched intra-party wars waged during the height of the tea party movement. The hope among conservative insurgents — and concern among the GOP powers-that-be — is Trump and Cruz serve as beacons to like-minded voters, donors and candidates, who can harness the energy and enthusiasm of the White House race into their down-ballot battles against incumbent GOP lawmakers.
In a potential nightmare scenario for the establishment, because many House and Senate primaries occur simultaneously with the presidential primary, a surging Cruz or Trump candidacy could directly boost their would-be allies and conservative hangers-on.
GOP officials invested in protecting Republican incumbents, armed with polls and a belief that their legislators have prepared diligently for re-election, say they are confident they will prevail even if Trump or Cruz (or both) pile up more victories. Even some conservative operatives caution that if a wave is coming, it hasn’t arrived yet.
But the example set by Cruz and Trump is a potentially potent one — and something conservative groups have already set about to capitalize on.
“I think Cruz’s victory in Iowa and Trump’s in New Hampshire really signaled to people that, yep, voters are ready to change,” said David McIntosh, president of the Club for Growth, the most influential of a coterie of organizations known for taking on Republican incumbents. “Let’s mix it up.”
The presidential primary offers a rare sense of hope for conservative groups who in recent years have struggled to find success. After being upended by tea-party backed candidates in 2010 and 2012, groups such as the Chamber of Commerce and National Republican Senatorial Committee struck back in 2014, winning a series of high-profile primaries against candidates backed by the Club for Growth and Senate Conservatives Fund.
Their success carried over into 2016. The Club, unlike its 2014 attempt to take down Sen. Thad Cochran in Mississippi, has yet to endorse any challenger to a sitting Republican incumbent. Few conservative operatives consider any of the Senate GOP incumbents up for election this year vulnerable — even John McCain, who has long held an antagonistic relationship with conservative activists, is considered a strong bet to win his primary. Several incumbent House members, such as Rep. Renee Ellmers of North Carolina, have been targeted for defeat, but thus far even those races are few and far between.
Now, however, officials at groups such as the Senate Conservatives Fund say they have reason to think breakthroughs might be possible.
“It's too soon to say for sure, but we hope this is the beginning of a conservative awakening that ultimately defeats the D.C. establishment by electing principled leaders at all levels who will support and defend the Constitution,” said Ken Cuccinelli, president of Senate Conservatives Fund.
Conservatives speculate that Trump and Cruz will galvanize voters — albeit in different ways with different groups of voters given the distinct appeal of each candidate — to push back against the establishment pick in Senate and House races much in the same way they have in the presidential contest.
To some, the earliest best test case comes March 1, when Alabama hosts its Senate primary, a pair of contested House GOP re-elections, and its presidential primary. There, fifth-term Sen. Richard Shelby is running against a trio of GOP challengers, headlined by a former Marine named Jonathan McConnell. Two House GOP incumbents, Reps. Martha Roby and Bradley Byrne, are also trying to fend off primary foes.
“From a U.S. Senate standpoint, the Alabama Senate race is the canary in the coal mine,” said David Bossie, president of Citizens United, a group that backs insurgent Republican challengers. “Can an insurgent candidate down-ballot harness that same energy? Alabama is a perfect example and an early example.”
To Bossie, McConnell — who has set out to define his opponent as a creature of Washington who has spent too long away from home — needs to link himself arm-in-arm with his potential top-of-the-ticket running mates in the fall.
“Jonathan McConnell has to go out, and I know he has been, he needs to continue to tell the voters of Alabama why it is important to vote for anti-establishment candidates across the ballot,” Bossie said. “Not just on presidential, but if you’re going to be motivated for Donald Trump, how is it that you send the definition of establishment politician, Richard Shelby, back to the U.S. Senate to work against what Donald Trump is for, or Ted Cruz, or Ben Carson.”
Not everyone sees Alabama as a good example of the effect Trump’s or Cruz’s success could have down the ballot. Polls show Shelby sporting an enormous advantage just weeks before the primary, an edge even Bossie didn’t dispute. The longtime Republican would face a runoff if he earns less than 50 percent of the vote, but so far, Republicans close to the campaign say a series of TV ads backed by a major investment and a strong network of on-the-ground support has kept him well above the danger zone.
The Club for Growth has not endorsed in the primary, and in an interview, McIntosh said the “threshold is a little bit higher” for an endorsement in Senate races because the GOP’s majority in the Senate is at stake in 2016. He pointed instead to the effect it could have in a trio of House races featuring Club-endorsed candidates — in North Carolina, where Jim Duncan is taking on Rep. Ellmers, in Illinois, where Kyle McCarter is taking on Rep. John Shimkus, and in the open-seat race to replace former Speaker of the House John Boehner.
Other Republican operatives say Shelby’s extensive work to protect himself is the norm this cycle, one in which they say incumbents — as many did in 2014 — have learned the lessons of ignoring even the most marginal of primary opponents.
“We are monitoring the results of those early presidential primaries, but we are confident that the incumbent Senators facing primaries are strong enough to win irrespective of extrinsic factors,” said Ian Prior, spokesman for the American Crossroads network of outside groups.
Republican strategists aligned with the establishment say that despite enthusiasm for Trump and Cruz, many campaigns against GOP incumbents simply lack the funds and organization to be taken seriously.
“These aren’t serious people,” said one senior GOP strategist, granted anonymity to speak candidly. “So the idea that they’re going to be able to somehow, with no name ID and no organization and no money, ride the lightning just because they say they support Cruz … I don’t see it. I don’t feel it.”
Even in the case of the presidential and House or Senate primary falling on the same day, McIntosh cautioned the difference might be minute.
“At the margin, you could have a couple percent say, ‘I’m just voting against anybody who is an incumbent, anybody in Washington,”’ said McIntosh. “Again, that would be a couple percent.”