The “Civil War” between the Tea Party faction of the Republican Party and the establishment wing of the GOP is being fought on the battlefields of the Republican Senate primaries. Tea Party candidates are threatening very conservative incumbent Republican Senators in very red states. The political center of gravity in the Republican primary universe has shifted so far to the far right that even conservative stalwarts like Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran and Wyoming Senator Mike Enzi are getting caught in the Tea Party cross hairs. When the Senators representing Mississippi and Wyoming are viewed as being “too liberal”, you know there is a problem. As much as the GOP establishment would like for the Tea Party fringe to disappear, that is no longer a realistic possibility, as hard right activists seem ready to eat everything in their path including longstanding Republican leaders like Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell.
In 2004, then Bush strategist Karl Rove tried to motivate GOP voters by pushing emotional hot buttons and triggering “anger points”. While his strategy was successful, Rove now appears to be trying to close “Pandora’s box” to no avail. The anger points he exploited to achieve victory in 2004 have now festered, multiplied and morphed into a monster that threatens to consume the GOP establishment and replace it with something even more base and ugly. From the mountains of Wyoming to the swamps and coastal plains of South Carolina, Tea Party candidates are bringing the fight to established GOP Senators and trying to reshape the party in Ted Cruz’s image. A quick look at the early 2014 Republican Party landscape reveals just how perilous the electoral prospects have become for GOP incumbent Senators as they face mounting threats on their right flanks. The Senators who are facing the greatest jeopardy from Tea Party challenges to their right are as follows:
Mitch McConnell (Kentucky): Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has served nearly thirty years in the US Senate. He was first elected in 1984. He has been a solidly conservative Senator, but that has not insulated him from criticism that he simply is not conservative enough. Furthermore, years of GOP anti-government rhetoric may have unintentionally undermined McConnell’s standing with republican primary voters since he is now so closely identified with dysfunction in Washington. Ironically, McConnell himself is in danger of becoming a victim of his own “success”. He has demonized DC for so long that he is paying the price for being a Washington DC insider.
Right wing groups like the Senate Conservatives Fund (SCF) are endorsing Louisville businessman Matt Bevin, in his bid to unseat McConnell in the GOP primary. They are critical of what they perceive as McConnell’s “liberal voting record”, his alleged softness on preventing illegal immigration and their perception that he ”has the support of the entire Washington establishment and he will do anything to hold on to power.” Mitch McConnell is too liberal is their mantra.
Lamar Alexander (Tennessee): McConnell’s neighbor to the South’ Lamar Alexander has also drawn the ire of the Tea Party for being too liberal for their tastes. State Representative Joe Carr is targeting Alexander. he announced his candidacy one week after several Tennessee Republicans sent an open letter chastising Senator Alexander proclaiming, ”quite honestly, your voting record shows that you do not represent the conservative values that we hold dear and the votes you have cast as senator are intolerable to us.” Carr calls Alexander “the most liberal member of the delegation from Tennessee.
Lindsey Graham (South Carolina): John McCain’s political sidekick and fake moderate Lindsey Graham is so unpopular with Tea Party conservatives that he has drawn three challengers on his right flank. State Sen. Lee Bright, small businessman Richard Cash and political neophyte Nancy Mace are all tripping over each other trying to see who can stand out as the most right wing alternative to Graham. Of course, by splitting the hard right vote three ways they are actually decreasing their odds of ousting Graham from his Senate perch. Nevertheless, one of the three could pull away from the other two and give angry conservatives a chance to pull the lever to oust Graham in the GOP primary in South Carolina.
Mike Enzi (Wyoming): Mike Enzi, rated the 8th most conservative member of the US Senate, has not been able to fend off a challenge from his right being mounted by Dick Cheney’s daughter Liz. Enzi has defended himself by reminding voters that he used to be ranked the 3rd most conservative member of the Senate, but of course the fact that he has ever compromised and worked with Democrats is enough to fuel Liz Cheney’s fundraising. She has accumulated a war chest of over one million dollars already to compete in the usually low budget Wyoming Senate contest.
John Cornyn (Texas): Even though Cornyn boasts that the National Journal ranks him the second most conservative member of the one hundred member US Senate, he is drawing an opponent on his right flank. Being the second most conservative member is underachieving for Texas after all. Erick Wyatt is challenging Cornyn and he seems to be making the centerpiece of his campaign abolishing the income tax and opposing immigration reform. He also apparently believes somehow that Barack Obama supports illegal immigration to benefit his family, stating “if [Obama] manipulates simple laws like this to protect his ILLEGAL family members, what else do you think he is willing to manipulate and turn for his own private use?” Wyatt is pretty far out there, but his strategy of running hard right is the same strategy that was employed by Ted Cruz to defeat the more establishment candidate, David Dewhurst in Texas’ 2012 GOP Senate Primary.
Thad Cochran (Mississippi): Nowhere has the GOP Civil War in Senate primaries become more troubling however, than in Mississippi, where Thad Cochran faces a formidable challenge from right wing State Senator Chris McDaniel. Cochran has been a US Senator since 1979, when McDaniel was just seven years old. McDaniel has been endorsed by a number of conservative groups including the Club for Growth, the Senate Conservatives Fund and the Madison Project PAC. Judging by the company he keeps, his campaign seems to be based on the concept that the GOP’s problem is they just aren’t racist enough. McDaniel pals around with Neo-Confederate secession groups and shares the stage with speakers who claim Abe Lincoln was a Marxist.
In several Senate races already, the Tea Party wing of the GOP is going after staunchly conservative Republicans for not being conservative enough. The 2014 election cycle may see more political coups like the primaries that ousted Utah Senator Bob Bennett and Indiana Senator Dick Lugar and replaced them with Tea Party extremists (Mike Lee went onto win the general election in Utah while Richard Mourdock was defeated by a Democrat in Indiana after he infamously referred to rape as something God intended). No Republican Senator right now is safe. The GOP Civil War is in full swing, and the Tea Party army is spoiling for a fight in several states. Karl Rove’s 2004 strategy has created an emboldened army of malcontents, racist and misfits who are a threat to swallow what is left of the Republican Party one Senate race at a time.
Keith Brekhus is a progressive American who currently resides in Red Lodge, Montana. He is co-host for the Liberal Fix radio show. He holds a Master’s Degree in Sociology from the University of Missouri. In 2002, he ran for Congress as a Green Party candidate in the state of Missouri. In 2014, he worked as a field organizer for Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick’s successful re-election bid in Arizona’s 1st Congressional District. He can be followed on Twitter @keithbrekhus or on Facebook.