WASHINGTON — Conservative, anti-tax tea party groups have spent millions of dollars on this year’s Republican primaries only to fall short in election after election. Yet for all the losses — from Kentucky to Mississippi — business for the tea party movement has never been better.
The lack of success at the ballot box ahead of this year’s midterm congressional elections hasn’t kept the insurgent movement from raising huge sums of money and continuing to pull the Republican Party to the right. Republican lawmakers who previously compromised with Democrats on spending, among other issues, now refuse to budge — even if it means shutting down the government and risking a default on the nation’s debt.
Those facts are frustrating mainstream Republicans, who on Wednesday implored tea party activists to rethink the money they are giving to anti-establishment groups such as Club for Growth, FreedomWorks and the Senate Conservatives Fund. All three backed the failed bid of Chris McDaniel, a Mississippi state senator, to oust U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran after six terms in office.
Republicans need to gain six seats in November’s midterm elections to take control of the Senate for the final two years of President Barack Obama’s second term, a feat that’s within reach in a year when many Democratic incumbents face dire poll numbers and are being vastly outspent by outside conservative groups.
“How much money did we spend in Mississippi that could have been spent picking up the majority?” asked Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who had to beat back six challengers in his own primary earlier this month.
But before the tea party groups turn their full attention to Democrats, they are in the midst of spending a staggering amount of money in the Republican primaries to benefit insurgent conservatives against party incumbents.
Tea party-aligned groups spent almost $7.2 million on McDaniel’s failed bid to deny Cochran a seventh term in the Senate. The anti-tax Club for Growth and its affiliated PAC were the largest outside spenders in Mississippi, spending more than $3.1 million to help McDaniel. Of that, $2.4 million went to messages attacking Cochran.
In all, tea party-aligned groups that must disclose their finances have raised almost $42 million since January 2013. They have spent more than $40 million but have no real wins. Mainstream Republican Senate candidates brushed aside tea party-backed candidates in North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, Colorado and other states.
The tea party did score a stunning victory in a House of Representatives primary, when obscure college professor David Brat ousted Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor in Virginia. That win likely energized tea partyers’ hopes in Mississippi, where McDaniel initially beat Cochran in the state’s primary but failed to win the outright majority required to avoid a runoff. Undeterred by how that runoff ended, tea party activists are now looking ahead to support anti-establishment candidates in Tennessee, Kansas and Alaska.
Even without a big-time win this year, the 5-year-old tea party movement can unquestionably claim credit for accelerating a rightward drift among congressional Republicans.
For 17 years, for example, Republican legislative leaders had compromised with Democrats to reach tax-and-spending accords to keep the government funded. But after seeing some colleagues lose, or nearly lose, to tea party insurgents in party primaries in 2010 and 2012, many House Republicans refused to go along with a 2013 budget deal.
The result was a temporary government shutdown that, according to polls, badly hurt the Republican Party’s image. Yet the tea party groups that spent so much to beat Cochran still lump many Republican incumbents in with Democrats as enemies to be beaten in the next election.