Why you shouldn't expect a Tea Party primary wave in 2014

The latest crop of Tea Party insurgents faces longer odds of winning

John Cornyn
(Image credit: (T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images))

The Republican Party has a civil war on its hands, which is manifesting itself in a rash of 2014 primary election challenges.

In the latest example, conservative Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Texas) late Monday evening announced that he would take on Sen. John Cornyn (R), the second-ranking Senate Republican. Seven GOP senators up for re-election next year now face primary challenges, creating the impression that a chunk of the party establishment could be in jeopardy come next November.

But the threat of the anti-incumbent wave may be a bit overblown.

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Consider Stockman. He's a conservative firebrand with a knack for controversy and hyperbolic statements. He suggested President Obama should be impeached, and brought Ted Nugent as his guest to the State of the Union. That could ostensibly play well in a primary with conservative voters who want a candidate more willing to brawl with the president.

Yet Stockman has a huge disadvantage in the ever-important money game. He has only $32,000 in his war chest, while Cornyn has $7 million. Stockman's campaign is also already $163,000 in debt. And with only three months to go before the primary in early March, he has little time to close the fundraising gap.

Further complicating the money problem, the Club for Growth — which boosted Sen. Ted Cruz's (R-Texas) insurgent campaign to office and endorsed his shutdown gambit — says it won't back Stockman. "While Congressman Stockman has a pro-economic growth record, so does Sen. Cornyn, as witnessed by his 87 percent lifetime Club for Growth score," the group said in a statement.

The Club's announcement may signal a shift in strategy for Tea Party groups. The decision to sit pat now "implies they may be exercising leadership by example," wrote the Daily Caller's Matt Lewis, having sensed that "the pendulum has probably swung too far" and that "inmates are running the asylum."

The Club may also have doomed Stockman's nascent campaign. Tea Party challengers succeeded in the past by using grassroots fundraising to level the playing field. If other Tea Party allies follow the Club's lead, it could deprive fledgling challengers of the support they need to truly become competitive.

Moreover, as the Club points out, Cornyn is no moderate. National Journal ranked him the second-most conservative senator in 2012.

That elucidates perhaps the biggest problem facing the current crop of insurgents: Republican senators are more conservative than ever, leaving little room on the right for intra-party challengers.

That's partly the result of more moderate senators having already been picked off in elections past (see: Dick Lugar in Indiana). But it's also the result of a long-standing trend toward political polarization, as this chart from VoteView shows:

Hence, incumbents this time around typically have the backing of their conservative base. In Cornyn's case, six in ten "very conservative" voters approve of his job performance, according to one poll.

As a result, GOP primary challengers are not gaining much traction in early polling. Sure, Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) is in rough shape. But elsewhere, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has a three-to-one edge over his GOP opponent, and Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wy.) leads by as much as 50+ points.

Plus, business interests are already working to undercut insurgent campaigns and the groups that support them, while at the same time pledging redoubled support for incumbents.

"The Senate has become the House," Republican pollster Glen Bolger told the Washington Post, with "willy-nilly primary challenges designed to do nothing but satisfy the egos of the challengers."

Stockman and the other primary challengers could force their incumbent opponents further to the right ahead of the general election. But the odds of them catching fire and sweeping incumbents from office remain a long shot.

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Jon Terbush

Jon Terbush is an associate editor at TheWeek.com covering politics, sports, and other things he finds interesting. He has previously written for Talking Points Memo, Raw Story, and Business Insider.