Tea Party Challenges Stumbling as Primaries Approach

WASHINGTON – Lawmakers with strong ties to the Tea Party movement have gained a toehold in the U.S. Senate but it appears they might have difficulty expanding their numbers this year.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) are among those associated with the conservative, grassroots drive that has proved influential within Republican Party politics in a relatively short period of time. But a review of upcoming Senate contests reveals that more establishmentarian Senate candidates maintain an edge – at least to this point – heading into the primary season.

Conservative disaffection for the manner in which mainstream Republicans are confronting President Obama and his policies, coupled with ongoing spending issues, have resulted in a higher than usual number of challenges to GOP incumbents.

Yet, in the first showdown of the primary season, establishment Republicans won hands down, with Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn, of Texas, blasting Rep. Steven Stockman (R-Texas) by more than 40 points. Cornyn is overwhelmingly favored to win a third term in the fall.

“I think we are going to crush them everywhere,” said Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who faces his own Tea Party challenge this year from Louisville businessman Matt Bevin. “I don’t think they are going to have a single nominee anywhere in the country.”

Tea Party supporters were heartened by the results in 2010 when incumbent Republican senator Bob Bennett, of Utah, lost to movement favorite Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) at the state’s GOP convention and when Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) lost the Republican primary to Joe Miller, although Murkowski recaptured her seat in a write-in campaign.

The Tea Party tasted success – though short-lived -- again in 2012 when Indiana State Treasurer Richard Mourdock defeated Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), who was seeking a seventh term, in the GOP primary. Mourdock lost to Sen. Joe Donnelly, (D-Ind.) in the general election.

Despite some successful challenges, almost 99 percent of congressional incumbents won their primaries in 2012. History shows that since 1946 only five percent of such challenges have result in the office-holder losing his or her party’s nomination. This year 28 incumbents – 12 Republicans -- are seeking reelection in the 36 Senate seats up for grabs. If the past is any guide, only one incumbent can expect to lose his or her re-nomination fight.

Of the 12 Republicans seeking re-election, seven – not counting Cornyn – are facing primary challenges. Polls show the incumbents, in most cases, maintaining substantial leads.