WASHINGTON -- The next month looms as a crucial test for the tea party movement’s 2014 hopes, and so far, its prospects in Georgia are shaky.
The May 20 Republican U.S. Senate primary is a free-for-all, featuring five candidates seen as having a chance to win. Rep. Paul Broun, who’s most closely identified with the tea party, has not broken out of the pack.
Georgia is one of five states that will be closely watched in the next month for clues about the movement’s clout. Republican primaries in North Carolina, Kentucky, Idaho and Mississippi also feature grassroots challengers in congressional races -- and in each state, the establishment candidate is favored.
This uncertain outlook is new territory for the tea party, a loose confederation of voters determined to drive down the federal debt and reduce the size and mission of government. It was credited with helping elect 87 Republican freshmen in 2010, enough to give the party control of the House of Representatives, and it’s been responsible for reshaping the image of the Republican Party.
Recently, the movement has struggled to match its early successes. Its embrace of Senate candidates who proved too extreme for the general electorate arguably cost Republicans the five seats they needed in 2012 to pull even with Democrats.
By the end of last year, about one in five people told Gallup they supported the movement, down from about one-third in 2010. The Republican establishment noticed, embracing some tea party views but also pouring money and resources to candidates facing insurgent challenges.
“In 2010 the establishment ignored the tea party. In 2012 they tried to get along. In 2014 they’re fighting back,” said Jennifer Duffy, Senate analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
Are they ever.
Broun, who is endorsed by the conservative Madison Project, embraces many of the tea party themes. He offers a four way test for legislation: “Is it right/moral? Is it constitutional? Is it necessary? Is it affordable?”
But he’s also stoked controversy for saying of evolution, embryology and the Big Bang Theory in 2012 that “all that is lies straight from the pit of hell.”
He’s also an incumbent in a year when Republican voters are down on Washington, and two strong candidates without Washington ties are vying for the Senate nomination. Businessman David Perdue is running an ad saying his opponents have “been in office for 63 years.” He implores voters to “send a different type of person to Washington.”
Erick Erickson of the conservative blog, RedState, an influential conservative voice, endorsed former Secretary of State Karen Handel last week, saying his heart is with Broun, but his head is with Handel.
She “does a few things Broun does not do,” he said. “She neutralizes the War on Women argument (and) she is palatable to the deep pockets that Broun is not palatable to.”
They face tough opposition, though, in Rep. Jack Kingston, a personable House veteran with strong appeal to more center-right Republicans -- and the backing of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce -- as well as in Rep. Phil Gingrey, a six-term congressman.
The same patterns are being repeated elsewhere. Kentucky features a bruising Senate primary, also May 20, between one of insider Washington’s towering figures, Senate Republican leader and 29-year incumbent Mitch McConnell, versus Louisville businessman Matt Bevin.
In Idaho the same day, Rep. Mike Simpson, another Republican member of Congress with deep ties to official Washington, faces Idaho Falls lawyer Bryan Smith.
The first clues about the tea party’s fate will come Tuesday in North Carolina. House Speaker Thom Tillis faces Greg Brannon, who has strong tea party backing, and the Rev. Mark Harris, a Charlotte Baptist pastor.
The fiercest fight could come at the end of this cycle, June 3, in Mississippi. Thirty-five year Senate veteran Thad Cochran, who stands to head the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee if Republicans win control of the chamber, first has to defeat State Sen. Chris McDaniel.
Gauging the tea party’s influence is difficult. It’s become more politically sophisticated, setting up political action committees, and getting help from a strong conservative fundraising network.
History shows that loyalists are far more likely to vote, particularly in primaries. In Mississippi, for instance, the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund plans robocalls and other strategies to find like-minded voters.
“We emphasize personal freedom, economic freedom and a debt free future,” explained Kevin Broughton, the group’s Jackson, Miss.-based communications director.
Another group, the Tea Party Express began a “Fighting for Liberty” bus tour April 19, featuring speakers and entertainers. It stopped in Biloxi last week, and is threading its way through the Midwest. It stopped in Kansas City and Wichita this week, hoping to help Milton Wolf, who the Express has endorsed over incumbent Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, in that state’s August 5 primary.
But mainstream Republicans are fighting back, worried the movement will nominate candidates seen as too doctrinaire to win in November.