WASHINGTON – This week marked the last chance this year for the tea party to knock off well-known GOP-establishment candidates, but the movement failed to capture a prime seat it had targeted while also managing to successfully defend several others.
Primary elections wrapped up Tuesday in Kansas, Michigan, Missouri and Washington, with another key one looming in Tennessee on Thursday.
Conservatives hoped Kansas would provide the same kind of shocking upset that saw a virtual unknown knock-off the GOP’s second-most-powerful figure in Congress, Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., during the Virginia GOP primary in June. But it didn’t happen Tuesday night.
Many in the tea party supported a Kansas candidate who is a distant cousin of President Obama, Dr. Milton Wolf, in his race against Roberts, who no longer even owns a home in his home state.
But this time around, the tea party didn’t just try to gain ground; it was also on the defense, trying to hang onto some key seats.
Some in the establishment media had sought to portray these primaries as “the tea party’s last stand.”
“We seem to hear that a lot, and reject the premise,” Kevin Broughton, national communications director for the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund told WND on Tuesday.
“That narrative almost presumes that if our endorsed candidate comes up short, it’s time for us to fold up our tents,” he observed.
“One electoral loss – or several – doesn’t mean we stop fighting for our core values of personal freedom, economic freedom and a debt-free future.”
As for accusations that this has been a disappointing primary season for the tea party, Broughton sees progress in the war, even if some battles have been lost.
“There’s a winner and loser in every election,” he said. “Losses are by definition ‘disappointing.’ But in some cases where we’ve come up short this cycle, we’ve seen the establishment candidate move to cover his right flank. Even if we lose, we’re helping shape the debate.”
Wolf, the tea-party favorite and little-known outsider, had been gaining ground rapidly against the incumbent, Roberts, who successfully sought a fourth term in the Senate.
After once trailing by as many 54 points, Wolf closed the gap to single digits and was within striking distance until the very end.
Wolf tried to engineer an upset akin to the one that shocked the nation on June 10 in the Virginia GOP primary, when tea party-backed challenger Dave Brat upset Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., the No. 2 Republican in the GOP-led House.
Wolf didn’t have the same issue – support for amnesty for illegal immigrants – that Brat used to bludgeon Cantor, because Roberts has voted against so-called comprehensive immigration reform in the Senate.
However, Roberts had been battered by the perception that he is the ultimate Washington insider ever since the New York Times revealed in February that the senator no longer owns a home in Kansas, but lists his official residence as a room he rents from supporters for $300 a month in Dodge City, Kansas.
According to the Times, Roberts’ driver’s license actually gives a golf course home as his address.
The incumbent somehow managed to make matters even worse on July 3, by saying, “Every time I get an opponent – I mean, every time I get a chance – I’m home.”
After the residence revelation, Wolf steadily hammered away at Roberts’ image as an entrenched incumbent who has been in the Senate since 1997 and in Congress since 1981.
The challenger accused the 78-year-old Roberts of spending more time in Washington and his Northern Virginia home then in Kansas.
According to the Times article, one of Robert’s Kansas neighbors can recall seeing him at the rental property he lists as his home only twice since 1977.
“The truth is, he lives in a home he purchased in Alexandria, Virginia, in 1975,” said Wolf, accusing the incumbent of either incompetence or indifference, alleging, “Roberts either can’t defend his record or he is so arrogant that he doesn’t respect Kansas voters.”
Roberts was endorsed by Gov. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., former Sen. Bob Dole, Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and entertainer Pat Boone.
Wolf was endorsed by talk-show kingpin Mark Levin and former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, now president of the Senate Conservatives Fund.
“Sen. Pat Roberts has been in Washington for 47 years and he’s voted with the Democrats to raise the debt limit 11 times, to raise taxes on 80% of Americans, and to put Kathleen Sebelius in charge of Obamacare. Sen. Roberts continues to refuse to debate even though he promised the voters he would,” wrote Cuccinelli.
Roberts did call for Sebelius to resign after the disastrous debut of Obamacare last fall.
Kansas was also where two stalwart tea-party members in Congress fought for their electoral lives – and won.
Rep. Tim Huelskamp, who strongly favors limited government and kept his seat, angered farmers by repeatedly voting against the farm bill.
According to the Kansas City Star, unsuccessful challenger Alan LaPolice tried to capitalize on “discontent with the congressman’s stances on agricultural issues and recent spats with party leaders.”
Huelskamp is also co-sponsoring legislation that would phase out a renewable fuel program that bolsters the U.S. market for ethanol, despite the fact his district includes 11 biofuel plants and vast fields of corn and sorghum.
He ran unopposed, two years ago.
Rep. Mike Pompeo staved off a challenge from what the Star called “popular” former Rep. Todd Tiahrt, who held the seat for 16 years before giving it up in 2010 for an unsuccessful GOP primary run against Sen. Moran.
Tiahrt claimed Pompeo hadn’t done enough to help his district and pointed to federal money he brought home for public works projects and aviation companies, when he served in Congress.
Pompeo argued lower taxes would do more for local economies than dipping into the federal trough in Washington and taking from taxpayers.
Huelskamp and Pompeo were first elected in the GOP landslide of 2010, when the tea party fueled the Republicans’ recapture of the House.
Another big battleground was in Michigan, where a pair of tea-party incumbents tried to keep their seats in Congress and fend off challenges from the business community.
Rep. Justin Amash beat the well-financed establishment opponent Brian Ellis, despite Ellis’ endorsement by some of the largest pro-Republican organizations and business-friendly groups.
An aide to Amash attributed his surge to tea-party values.
“Standing up for liberty and the Constitution is popular, while Brian Ellis’ support for Common Core, Obamacare expansion and NSA spying is not,” said the incumbent’s aide, Ben Vanderveen.
Rep. Kerry Bentivolio lost his battle against a candidate backed by the GOP establishment.
Bentvolio, the incumbent who had been endorsed by the Tea Party Express, lost his race against lawyer David Trott, who runs a mortgage foreclosure business.
After an eye-opening interview with WND on July 21, about his three-day fact-finding trip to Central America, Bentivolio had expressed supreme confidence that he would prevail, despite low polling numbers.
The congressman from a district just northwest of Detroit said that talking with constituents had given him the gut feeling that he would prevail.
Trott greatly outspent Bentivolio, lavishing $2.4 million of his own money on the race, compared to the $132,000 the incumbent reported as of three weeks ago. As of two weeks ago, Bentivolio had still not run a television ad.
Waging his well-funded and aggressive campaign, Trott sought to portray himself as a conservative tea-party candidate, even while backed by much of the GOP establishment.
He ran an ad that claimed, “Bentivolio failed to stand up for conservatives targeted by the IRS … by failing to vote and punish Lois Lerner for the scandal,” although a campaign spokeswoman said the only reason he missed that one vote was due to a bout of food poisoning, and that he has taken a “lead role” in investigating the IRS.
In fact, WND has witnessed Bentivolio, as a member of the House Oversight Committee, join other conservatives in sharply questioning IRS Commissioner John Koskinen and other witnesses about the scandal.
The Trott ad also claimed that Bentivolio “won’t even hold town hall meetings to hear from the people he represents,” but a local Michigan paper pointed out that was incorrect, and that the congressman had, in fact, made national headlines at a town hall by saying it would be a “dream come true” to write a bill to impeach President Barack Obama, but that he did not have enough evidence, yet.
Bentivolio has only served one term and was a considered a long-shot candidate in 2012 when incumbent Rep. Thad McCotter, R-Mich., surprisingly failed to qualify for the ballot, giving the challenger the inside track. The reindeer farmer then beat a write-in GOP candidate in the primary and a Democrat in the general election.
Michiganders also voted to fill four key House seats, with the departures of GOP Reps. Dave Camp and Mike Rogers, and Democratic Reps. John Dingell and Gary Peters.
According to the Detroit Free Press, “Dingell, Camp and Rogers are longtime House members whose seniority and sway in Congress will be tough to recover no matter who replaces them.”
Dingell’s wife, Debbi, will replace her husband, the longest-serving member of Congress in history.
The decisions by Camp and Rogers to not run again were both major surprises.
Both are powerful committee chairmen, with Camp running the House Ways and Means Committee, and Rogers guiding the House Intelligence Committee.
Camp’s committee has been vigorously investigating the IRS scandal.
Retired businessman Paul Mitchell, who spent $4 million of his own money, was leading recent polls in the bid to succeed Camp.
In the race to replace Rogers, former state Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop won his battle against state Rep. Tom McMillin.
The ballot in the “Show Me State” decided many issues but few candidates, as none of the incumbents in national office faced serious challenges.
Five of Missouri’s eight members of Congress faced challengers with little name recognition and little money.
Missouri voters voted on such topics as an expansion of gun rights, establishing farming rights, an expansion of privacy rights and a transportation tax.
There was even less election action in the state of Washington than in Missouri, where no statewide offices were on the ballot and a low turnout was expected.
But the result for the one open U.S. House seat could make history, as it could put two people from the same party into a congressional runoff, for the first time in state history.
In the 4th Congressional District, Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash, is retiring after 20 years, and a dozen candidates tried to get into the two-person runoff.
According to the Spokane News Tribune, the district is so heavily Republican, it could become the first congressional contest in state history to feature two candidates from the same party.
The state adopted a top-two primary system in 2008.
Thursday’s primary will pit establishment candidate and two-term incumbent Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., against conservative Joe Carr, who has been endorsed by Sarah Palin and talk-radio host Laura Ingraham.
It is difficult to tell how close this race will be because a recent tea-party poll showed Carr within seven points of the incumbent, which Alexander countered with his own poll, showing the senator leading by 30 points.
A poll from Real Clear Politics showed a 12-point cushion for Alexander, as of a week ago.
On Sunday, Carr insisted the race actually is “very, very, very” close and that a record turnout for early voting proves he is closing in on Alexander.
Alexander is a former governor and education secretary who the “Wall Street Journal calls the leading Tennessee Republican for two generations.
Joe Carr is a state legislator whose campaign has been using social media, particularly Twitter, to try to rally the conservative base.
Follow Garth Kant @DCgarth