The Tea Party has some strong financial weight behind it, but the movement's power mainly derives from its proven ability to unseat Republican incumbents (or heavy GOP establishment favorites) deemed insufficiently conservative. In 2010, the Tea Party successfully challenged Sens. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) in GOP primaries, and in 2012 the Tea Party backed candidates who unseated Sens. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio).
These victories, and similar triumphs by Rand Paul (Ky.), Ted Cruz (Texas), Marco Rubio (Fla.), plus the Tea Partiers who won their primaries and lost in the general election, pushed the GOP to the right, toward the Tea Party's policy wishes.
The 2014 cycle hasn't been so great for the Tea Party, though. Aside from a handful of Tea Party victories in Texas and local state races, the GOP establishment has won every high-profile fight. Mississippi's GOP primary, pitting Sen. Thad Cochran (R) against Tea Party-backed state Sen. Chris McDaniel, is the movement's last real chance to unseat an incumbent — and show its continued strength and relevance.
The race started out as a fairly typical post-2010 GOP primary fight, with Tea Party candidate McDaniel arguing that 36-year incumbent Cochran was too Washington and not conservative enough. But things got weird quickly. On April 20, conservative blogger Clayton Thomas Kelly allegedly broke into a nursing home to photograph Cochran's wife, who's been in a home for 13 years, afflicted with dementia. The video was included in an ad insinuating that Cochran is in an extramarital relationship with longtime executive assistant Kay Webber, an allegation Cochran denies.
Earlier this month, Kelly and then three other McDaniel supporters were arrested on criminal charges stemming from the nursing home incident. On the other hand, some watchdog groups say the relationship between Webber and Cochran is, if not romantic, a "Gordian knot of conflicts and potential conflicts," as the Sunlight Foundation's Bill Allison tells The New York Times. Good luck, Mississippi Republicans.