Much has been written about the ‘Civil War’ within the Grand Old Party between the Establishment/Old Guard and the Tea Party insurgents to secure a spot on the November ballot.
Yet with the vast majority of Tea Party candidates failing to unseat incumbent Republicans during this primary season, it was surprising to see a long-time serving Republican in the U.S. House loose his bid for renomination , and a Republican incumbent in the U.S. Senate appear to be on the ropes.
Congressman Ralph Hall, a 17-term member who began his legislative career as a Democrat in 1981, was the first incumbent Republican seeking re-election to be denied by a tea party-backed candidate John Ratcliffe.
Tea party-aligned groups such as the Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund supported Ratcliffe, who also provided a significant amount of money.
In the upper chamber, there was a great deal of talk about tea party candidates upsetting senators, and candidates seeking an open nomination, who were not ‘sufficiently conservative’ enough. In North Carolina’s GOP Senate contest, Greg Brannon made that charge against the eventual nominee Thom Tillis, but failed to make that charge stick.
But a recent nomination battle that was mired in controversy signaled that the tea party wasn’t really dead after all. Mississippi’s incumbent senior Senator Thad Cochran was seeking his seventh nomination.
But tea party-backed state senator Chris McDaniel, whose campaign was caught in a scandal right before the primary, came within a razor’s edge of defeating Cochran and securing the biggest score against an establishment Republican this year.
So there’s a runoff in late June to finalize the fight, and it appears that McDaniel may have the momentum to deprive the long-time senator from being renominated.
The core of the argument that tea party insurgents have been making is that some incumbent Republicans are not ‘pure’ enough in their ideological conservatism, and that only truly conservative candidates can bring the party into proper ideological alignment.
But if you look at an indicator of ‘conservativism’ on economic issues that most political scientists and scholars would utilize, you would see that the Republican conference in the U.S. Senate has drifted more to the right (or up, as the indicator uses a +1 as the mark of a ‘pure conservative’).
Several incumbent Republican senators have been the target of the ‘not conservative enough’ charge in their renomination bids this year; among them are South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, who faces a set of tea party-inspired challengers from his right, and Republican leader Mitch McConnell from Kentucky.
Along with Cochran, John Cornyn (who blew past a tea party challenger in his Texas renomination), and Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia senator who is leaving the Senate this year amid similar allegations of not being conservative enough, we can look at these supposedly ‘endangered’ Republicans and their level of conservative vote record compared to the GOP caucus as a whole.
Cochran’s lengthy record in the Senate began with a close alignment to the average conservative score of all the GOP senators (“GOP Caucus”), but over time, even though Cochran has moved more ‘conservative,’ the average GOP senator has moved further upward in conservatism.
In the 112th Congress, Cochran was the 9th-most moderate member of the 48 GOP senators. In comparison, Republican leader McConnell was the 20th-most conservative Republican (having gone much more conservative in his time), while South Carolina’s Graham was 25th.
If Cochran does loose the runoff election, other Republicans may be concerned about future challengers coming after them, and the likelihood is that to secure renomination, they will need not only a large financial war chest, but also a steady march to the right to protect themselves.
And with that, the tea party insurgency within the GOP can claim victory.