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Outside Conservative Groups Playing Defense This Cycle

Lee, who rose to power in an anti-incumbent wave, now benefits from the same protections as other incumbents. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Five years ago, Mike Lee rode the anti-establishment wave and unseated Utah Sen. Robert F. Bennett, one of the first casualties of the tea party revolution.  

This cycle, with Lee in the Senate, conservative outside groups — known in the past for provoking GOP primaries against incumbents  — share a common goal with the National Republican Senatorial Committee in deflating primary challenges from Lee's left and defending him in the general election.  

"Our movement has to change," FreedomWorks CEO Adam Brandon told CQ Roll Call. "We have to not just go on offensive, but be on defensive to protect our good guys."  

Likewise, the Club for Growth's activities this year reflect the fact that many of its preferred candidates are already in office. Lee, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson and Pennsylvania Sen. Patrick J. Toomey all earned the club's endorsement last fall.  

Two of the club’s biggest defensive priorities are in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, states Club for Growth President David McIntosh admitted “will be difficult to hold in a presidential year.”  

“It’s different from trying to choose a Republican alternative,” McIntosh said, and more about “remind[ing] voters why those two senators are good and why their opponents are not.” Johnson and Toomey, the club's former president, have 95 percent and 92 percent lifetime conservative ratings, respectively, from the group.  

The conservative right's best shot at defeating a GOP senator next year is in Arizona, where Rep. Matt Salmon and state Sen. Kelli Ward are considering primary challenges to Sen. John McCain. Salmon told CQ Roll Call  recently that many conservative outside groups, as well as some of his colleagues, have been urging him to run.  

For the NRSC, a GOP primary in a state such as Arizona is an annoyance that forces it to spend money it would have otherwise saved for the general election. Typically, McIntosh has no sympathy. "I’d say, 'You know, if they voted right, they wouldn’t have that problem.'”  

But sometimes, McIntosh added, the club holds off — as it will do this year in Illinois, where Sen. Mark S. Kirk, with only a 56 percent lifetime conservative rating, is running for re-election in a state that votes Democratic in presidential elections.  

That's why unseating McCain — still a long shot given the five-term Republican's fundraising advantage — would be a major victory for the activist right and an improvement from its record last cycle. In 2014, no tea party candidate succeeded in knocking off an incumbent senator. The closest anyone came was Chris McDaniel, who forced the Mississippi GOP primary into a runoff. But in the end, Sen. Thad Cochran won a seventh term by narrowly defeating  his tea party challenger with the help of Democrats who were eligible to vote in the runoff and turned out to vote against McDaniel.  

In the House, only one of the Club for Growth’s challengers unseated a sitting congressman — then-91-year-old Ralph M. Hall in Texas’ 4th District.  

There's now a bigger emphasis, McIntosh said, on finding Republican candidates early and urging the establishment wing of the party to get on board. In 2014, both the NRSC and the Club for Growth backed Dan Sullivan in Alaska, Tom Cotton in Arkansas and Ben Sasse in Nebraska.  

“It won’t happen always, but I’m looking for that," McIntosh said. And where it does, he added, "it strengthens our operation and it strengthens the Republican vote." This year, the NRSC and the club are in open conversation.  

But just because the club will be playing in more general election contests than GOP primaries, what McIntosh calls "the core of what we’re looking for" has not changed. "People who are going to be a minority in the Republican conference," he added.  

In Florida, where most conservative groups have backed Rep. Ron DeSantis, McIntosh expects to divvy up the media markets with tea party groups so no one group has to cover all the ad spending.  

Last year's Mississippi race, Brandon said, was "the most coordinated effort" among outside conservative groups to this point, but he expects to see even more communication with the club and the Senate Conservatives Fund this cycle.  

The club wants to play in Indiana, and while it hasn't yet made the same jump the SCF has to endorse Rep. Marlin Stutzman, McIntosh went far to point out the 3rd District congressman is no Richard Mourdock , the Indiana Republican who knocked out Sen. Richard G. Lugar and then lost in the general election in 2012.  

The club is being more diligent about vetting potential candidates — both about their records and their viability — what McIntosh called, “can-they-win research.” In New Hampshire, for example, the club isn't pleased with Sen. Kelly Ayotte, but with conservative Ovide Lamontagne not joining the race, it's not willing to back just anyone to challenge her.  

And it's not just the candidates — it's their teams, too.  

“It’s interesting," McIntosh said, "the number of times you find they haven’t put together a team, and their best friend for years volunteered to be campaign manager, and they have a lot of experience running a small business, but none doing campaigns." Candidates know, McIntosh said, if they want the club's backing and help from the PAC, they've got to do better.  

Brandon has a similar attitude, and he's been studying liberal groups such as Credo and EMILY's List to learn how to amass startup cash earlier. "Just doing the ground game," he added, "isn't going to cut it anymore."  

Related: Arizona's Salmon Bides His Time on McCain Challenge Club for Growth Stumbles With Mississippi Senate Loss Roll Call Race Ratings Map: Ratings for Every House and Senate Race in 2016