Who is winning the primary campaign war within the GOP between pragmatic conservatives and the anti-establishment wing of the party?
It’s a simple question, but it isn’t as easy to answer as you might think. Part of the problem is deciding which candidates and races are part of the war.
The anti-establishment wing of the party actually consists of two different elements: economic libertarians, supported most notably by the Club for Growth, and tea party groups such as FreedomWorks, the Senate Conservatives Fund, the Madison Project and the Tea Party Express. (Anti-establishment voices like Sarah Palin and RedState’s Erick Erickson fit in with the tea party groups.)
Some groups and individuals have already proved that their endorsements and independent expenditures matter, while the impact of others remains an open question.
The Club for Growth, for example, is strategic in its approach and considers competitiveness before entering a race. It plays only where it thinks it can win. But FreedomWorks has a long list of endorsements that includes plenty of unthreatened incumbents, and while the Madison Project has endorsed Milton Wolf’s challenge to Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., so far the group has helped Wolf raise a mere $150 of its $10,000 goal for the candidate, according to the Madison Project’s website .
In other words, not all of the primaries that pit pragmatic conservatives against anti-establishment hopefuls are serious fights. The primary for Senate in North Carolina on Tuesday, for example, is not one of them — at least not yet — depending on whether state Speaker Thom Tillis is forced to face one of his GOP opponents in a runoff.
For now, in North Carolina and other races, a tea-party-backed candidate without any resources isn’t a real threat to an incumbent or a well-heeled pragmatic conservative.
In fact, there are only a relative handful of races that qualify as establishment versus anti-establishment campaign fights.
The first is in Idaho’s 2nd District, where the Club for Growth, Madison Project, FreedomWorks and Senate Conservatives Fund all targeted Rep. Mike Simpson in the GOP primary. Insurgent challenger Bryan Smith appeared to have an excellent shot at knocking off Simpson, who was and remains proud of his pragmatic record.
Smith and his allies pounded Simpson, who has an A+ rating from the National Rifle Association and a 100 percent rating from National Right to Life, on government spending issues. But the congressman and his allies fired back, attacking the challenger’s trial lawyer background and defending Simpson’s conservative record.
A terrific U.S. Chamber of Commerce TV spot, one of three by the group, features a strong endorsement of Simpson by Mitt Romney, helping the congressman in a district with a considerable Mormon population.
Observers across the Republican spectrum now believe that Simpson is likely to win re-nomination, giving pragmatic conservatives an important victory early in the cycle. According to Open Secrets , the club has spent almost $500,000 against the congressman.
The second most obvious internal GOP fight is in Mississippi, where veteran Sen. Thad Cochran faces a challenge from state Sen. Chris McDaniel.
McDaniel, who like many on the anti-establishment side refers to himself as a “constitutional conservative,” is backed by the major outsider groups — the club, SCF, Madison Project, FreedomWorks and Tea Party Express, as well as Erickson.
The party establishment, ranging from former RNC chairman (and former governor) Haley Barbour and former Mississippi senator Trent Lott to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Gov. Phil Bryant and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, is supporting Cochran.
Cochran still leads in the race, but the attacks on him have taken a toll. His sky-high favorability numbers have dropped and the inevitability of victory that surrounded his recent races for re-election has evaporated. The club has spent more than $1.1 million against Cochran and another $400,000 for McDaniel.
But McDaniel has some work to do before knocking off Cochran in the June 3 primary, so this contest remains the premier pragmatic conservative versus anti-establishment fight in the country.
The Nebraska Senate race certainly has some elements of an internal war. Anti-establishment groups are supporting Ben Sasse, and the club has spent more than $220,000 against former state Treasurer Shane Osborn (though it isn’t obvious that he is part of the “establishment.”) More recently, RedState’s Erickson attacked community banker Sid Dinsdale, who seems to be emerging as a serious threat in the three-way fight.
But the chamber is not in the race, and the NRSC has remained neutral. Moreover, Sasse is more thoughtful than many knee-jerk anti-establishment candidates who utter little more than “constitutional conservative” platitudes and angry denunciations of the party’s leaders. The fact that anti-establishment groups are so supportive of Sasse makes this a race to watch.
Matt Bevin’s challenge to Sen. Mitch McConnell in Kentucky fits into the civil war narrative, since Bevin has been endorsed by FreedomWorks, the SCF and the Madison Project, in addition to Erickson. But the savviest anti-establishment group, the club, has stayed out of the fight, arguing that McConnell’s rating from the organization is good, sharper contrasts are available elsewhere and limited resources can have a greater impact in other races.
The Georgia Senate race (along with a number of open GOP House primaries) can be seen as part of the insider-versus-outsider battlefield. But the most obvious anti-establishment hopeful, Rep. Paul Broun, has only been endorsed by the Madison Project and isn’t raising any money. Of course, the Senate runoff could still produce a classic fight between the party’s two major wings.
In Kansas, Wolf has been endorsed by three groups, but not by the club or FreedomWorks, and medical doctor’s challenge to Roberts isn’t seen by many of the smartest observers as a serious one. Establishment groups aren’t active in the race because they don’t see Roberts in any danger. Of course, the primary won’t take place until Aug. 5, so that could change.
The same goes for Rob Maness in Louisiana, who has endorsements from the SCF and the Madison Project, but is not seen as a serious factor in the Louisiana Senate race. According to the Madison Project’s website , the group has raised $780 of the $10,000 it hoped to raise for Maness.
Oklahoma GOP Senate candidate T.W. Shannon seems to be emerging as a favorite of anti-establishment groups (the SCF and FreedomWorks have already endorsed him in a primary against Rep. James Lankford), but establishment groups seem content with either man.
Upcoming Senate primaries in North and South Carolina still could produce serious fights within the GOP, depending what happens in the initial primary election in each state. But at this point, it isn’t certain whether establishment favorites Tillis and Sen. Lindsey Graham will face runoffs.
Oddly, pragmatic conservatives and the Club for Growth have both endorsed Tom Cotton in Arkansas and Dan Sullivan in Alaska. That means both the club and the establishment will claim their victories — if they win in November.
There are other primaries that reflect the insider-versus-outsider division, though they aren’t likely to get national attention. In North Carolina’s 7th District, Woody White has been endorsed by Tea Party Patriots and Mike Huckabee but he is under attack as a trial lawyer in a U.S. Chamber of Commerce TV spot. In West Virginia’s 2nd District, Alex Mooney is getting anti-establishment support, and in California’s 7th District, Igor Birman is the outsider hopeful.
In Arizona’s 1st District, party insiders are fearful that combative state Rep. Adam Kwasman’s nomination would hurt the GOP’s prospects in November, while in Alabama’s 6th District, tea party favorite Chad Mathis could well make the runoff, setting off a six-week internecine bloodbath before the runoff.
And in Michigan, two “mainstream” conservatives, Brian Ellis and David Trott are trying to deny renomination to two “outsiders,” Reps. Justin Amash and Kerry Bentivolio, who looks particularly endangered.
So, there are plenty of fights still to come, and it’s too early to proclaim a winner and a loser.
But it’s already clear that the pragmatist conservatives have stopped the anti-establishment’s electoral momentum.
The expected victories by Simpson and McConnell suggest that incumbents and pragmatists can survive hard fought races as long as they prepare early enough and discredit their opponents before those challengers get traction.
In Delaware in 2010, Rep. Mike Castle couldn’t imagine that Christine O’Donnell could beat him. She did. And in Utah, a screwy nomination process and Sen. Bob Bennett’s lack of attention to it cost him his seat. Two years later, in Indiana, Sen. Richard G. Lugar’s advisers thought they knew Indiana and how to win. They didn’t.
Utah Sen. Orrin G. Hatch didn’t make the same mistake in 2012, and both Simpson and McConnell took note. In Mississippi, Thad Cochran didn’t, which is why he still has a very difficult fight on his hands.
No matter the wins and losses in the GOP “civil war” this year, don’t expect this to be the end of that fight. The party remains deeply divided, and both sides have the resources and commitment needed to take the fight into 2015 and 2016.
The war is likely to get messier and the division more consequential before the two sides look for ways to bridge their differences. That should please Democrats.