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Tea Party Tested: In One Month, Establishment on Defense

Cochran faces a June 3 primary. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

A seven-week gauntlet of Republican Senate primaries kicking off next month will decide the fate of the tea party’s success this year.  

If a Republican senator loses a primary this year, it will more than likely occur in a span of nominating contests premiering in one month. Incumbents got the boot thanks to tea-party-backed hopefuls in both 2010 and 2012, and those lesser known Republican nominees went on to both triumphs and failures.  

In the third election cycle since the rise of the tea party, fundraising and organization remain significant hurdles for anti-establishment candidates. The outside groups helping to fuel many of the primary campaigns concede they are realistic about their slim chances against incumbents and mainstream Republican candidates.  

Still, tea party organizers said they remain hopeful about picking off a few House seats and perhaps a couple Senate seats in their continued pursuit of increased congressional influence.  

“Some of our guys could lose, many of them could lose. We understand that,” said Daniel Horowitz of the Madison Project, which recruits and supports conservative candidates. “We take calculated risks. We want to see a path, but it’s very much an uphill path in many of these races, especially if you’re going up against an incumbent and even some of the open seats where you’re starting out with a lot less money.”  

But, Horowitz added, "on a large scale we have already won by forcing most of the incumbents to embrace, at least publicly, many of our policies."  

The races to watch begin May 6 in North Carolina, followed by Nebraska on May 13, Kentucky and Georgia on May 20, Mississippi on June 3 and South Carolina on June 10. South Dakota's open seat has also invited a June 3 primary with similar dynamics, but it has drawn less outside interest than the others.  

Senate candidates aiming to unseat longtime Republicans gathered over the weekend in the Bluegrass State, considered ground zero for the anti-establishment this year. The April 5 Louisville, Ky., meeting dubbed FreePAC was intended to fire up thousands of conservative activists from around the country for the final weeks before the primaries. And the rally was timed and located specifically to give a boost to Louisville businessman Matt Bevin in the final sprint of his uphill challenge to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.  

Bevin, who has attacked the five-term senator for not fighting hard enough against the president's health care law, was scheduled to be among a handful of tea party darlings on stage. The other Senate candidate was Mississippi state Sen. Chris McDaniel, whose challenge to six-term Sen. Thad Cochran is widely viewed as more likely to succeed.  

McDaniel is backed by the Club for Growth and Senate Conservatives Fund, which have both aired TV ads on his behalf. Meanwhile, Cochran’s late decision to seek re-election and his lack of an existing political operation put him at a disadvantage for his first legitimate challenge in 30 years. He and his allies have since pushed the campaign into high gear .  

But after Republican Sens. Robert Bennett of Utah and Richard G. Lugar of Indiana were defeated in a 2010 convention and 2012 primary, respectively, Cochran’s delayed preparation is an exception among his colleagues. For the most part, incumbents with conservative targets on their backs have been proactive, rather than reactive.  

“Republican senators have learned their lessons of the last two cycles and prepared themselves early for primary challenges, and that hard work is paying off,” said Brian Walsh, a GOP consultant and adviser to the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “What’s unfortunate, though, is that for the third cycle in a row, D.C.-based conservative groups have spent millions of dollars win-or-lose attacking other Republicans to the benefit of Democrats.”  

McConnell and his allies have poured several million dollars onto the Kentucky airwaves for his primary campaign, and he is favored to move on to face Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes in a competitive general-election contest.  

McConnell and his Kentucky Senate colleague Rand Paul are supporting opposing candidates in the North Carolina primary. The minority leader and national Republicans back state Speaker Thom Tillis, while Paul and Utah Sen. Mike Lee are backing physician and tea party activist Greg Brannon. With pastor Mark Harris also in the running, the contest to take on top Republican target Sen. Kay Hagan, a Democrat, could stretch all the way to a July 15 runoff .  

Tea party groups will claim victory the following week in Nebraska, should Ben Sasse, Midland University president and a former Bush administration official, beat former state Treasurer Shane Osborn in that open-seat GOP primary. Sasse has been on a fundraising tear, raising $850,000 in the first quarter. He also recently landed on the cover of the conservative National Review and is viewed by some as a future senator in the mold of Oklahoma’s Tom Coburn.  

The following Tuesday will decide McConnell’s fate. Just as interesting on May 20 is the race for the GOP Senate nod in Georgia. With no clear front-runner, two Republicans in the crowded primary field will likely advance to a July 22 runoff. Republican strategists in Washington and Atlanta fear tea-party-backed Rep. Paul Broun will be nominated and give Democrats a golden opportunity to pick up a seat — and maybe even save their majority.  

Cochran's last stand will be next, and then South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham will be on the hook on June 10. The second-term Republican is pushing hard to avoid a runoff on June 24, when a one-on-one race with one of his so-far underwhelming challengers could invite a splash of outside spending.  

“Between now and the end of June, we’re wholly focused on winning those primaries,” said Adam Brandon, executive vice president of FreedomWorks. “Our goal is to expand the freedom caucus. I want to make sure Ted Cruz, Mike Lee and Rand Paul have one or two more senators to join them.”