Government & Politics

Tea party, mainstream Republicans look for post-primary common ground

U.S. Senate candidate Milton Wolf spoke during a stop of the Tea Party Express in Olathe in April. Wolf lost to incumbent Pat Roberts on Tuesday.
U.S. Senate candidate Milton Wolf spoke during a stop of the Tea Party Express in Olathe in April. Wolf lost to incumbent Pat Roberts on Tuesday. File photo

Lorie Medina is back home in Texas after a summer on the tea party trail — first in Mississippi, where GOP Sen. Thad Cochran was the target, then in Kansas for Milton Wolf’s campaign against Sen. Pat Roberts.

Her efforts weren’t quite enough. The tea party came up short in both states, outcomes she blames on the establishment’s fondness for brutal campaigns.

“Their entire lives revolve around money and power,” she said. “If that is your motivation, you will do anything to keep it.”

Her frustration is not unique, but it is not unilateral either. On the other side, mainstream Republicans worry the tea party’s take-no-prisoners approach this summer has scared moderate voters and endangered the party’s chances at the polls.

Tea partiers “really use fear and anger, and that only gets you so far,” said Kansas Republican Stephanie Sharp, a political consultant.

The just-ended primary season did little to resolve the conflict, all sides said this week, leaving the tea party and establishment Republicans locked in a stalemate nearly five years after the populist anti-government movement began.

Are tea partiers now fully embedded in the GOP, able to dictate the message and elect candidates? Or are they still pesky outsiders, useful for energy and money but unacceptable as senators and representatives?

The answer still isn’t clear. That bothers both sides, and it could end up helping Democrats.

“You’ve got some serious troubles ahead,” said Alex Poulter, a tea party activist in Johnson County. “The Republican Party did so much damage to itself in this primary, I’m not sure it can ever recover in time.”

Winning the battle, losing the war

Tea party primary candidates fell short in more places than Kansas and Mississippi, of course. They also lost this year in Kentucky, Georgia, Ohio, South Carolina and Thursday in Tennessee.

Except for rare victories in a Virginia House primary and the Nebraska GOP Senate primary, incumbents and establishment Republicans won virtually everywhere.

Some Republicans say the reason is simple: The tea party continues to offer flawed, inexperienced insurgents as candidates.

“If conservatives run a weak candidate, and conservatives lose, it’s the fault of conservatives,” said Republican Benjamin Hodge, a former Kansas legislator. “It’s not the fault of the establishment.”

Conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin agreed. “The tea party era comes to a close,” she wrote in The Washington Post this week. “Millions in donors’ hard-earned money was wasted on unqualified and unelectable characters with a high incidence of personal scandal and political nuttiness.”

Wolf’s Facebook posts of gruesome patient X-rays with flippant comments may have doomed his candidacy, many outsiders said.

Former U.S. Rep. Steve LaTourette, a Republican, called tea party organizers “grifters” more interested in raising money than winning elections.

“In primary after primary,” he wrote on Politico, “rank-and-file Republicans haven’t bought what the grifters are selling.”

But tea partiers, and some outside analysts, offer a very different explanation for the lack of tea party success at the ballot box.

Mainstream candidates have won, they say, because they’ve got more money, more campaign experience — and because they’ve stolen tea party positions on spending, taxes, immigration and other issues.

“The tea party is really winning,” said congressional scholar Norm Ornstein. “It has co-opted the establishment of the Republican Party.”

But there’s an important difference between winning the message war and losing actual elections, some tea party members say. And they’re growing tired of being called grifters and charlatans after the votes are counted, only to be asked to support the ticket on Election Day.

“The establishment does not help itself with that kind of rhetoric,” said Ryan Johnson of the Missouri Alliance for Freedom, a conservative group with tea party tendencies. “When they want to call their base crazy, they don’t help themselves.”

It is clear that the tea party’s popularity, even within the Republican Party, has dropped. In April, a Gallup poll showed 41 percent of the party supported the movement, down from 61 percent four years ago.

Uniting the party for November

None of this might matter if mainstream Republican nominees could win without tea party support. In most cases, though, establishment candidates say they need the energy and enthusiasm of the tea party to prevail.

Incumbent Sen. Lamar Alexander was renominated Thursday in Tennessee, but he appeared to win slightly less than half of his party’s votes against six challengers. Other establishment Republicans won by narrower-than-expected margins this year.

Roberts won this week’s Kansas GOP four-way primary with 48 percent of the GOP electorate. He lost to Wolf in Johnson, Wyandotte, Leavenworth and Miami counties, all considered crucial to his chances in November.

Roberts is still the favorite, especially against two potential opponents, not just one. No Democrat has won a Kansas Senate seat since the Depression.

But a split Republican Party will make Roberts’ task much more difficult.

“We’re going to work very hard to bring everybody in together,” he told The Star after Tuesday’s primary. “The key is Obama. They know we have to take the Senate. That’s the key.”

But when asked if Wolf had agreed to help the campaign, Roberts would only say the two had a “short” conversation.

That isn’t surprising. Roberts and Wolf, and their surrogates, spent months attacking each other, largely over personal issues like residency and work habits. Wolf may have embarrassed Roberts in the campaign’s closing days by ambushing him in Emporia, demanding a debate.

Medina, though, says Wolf was badly mistreated by the Roberts campaign, making party unity more difficult.

“It was a vile, personal attack upon him,” she said. “It was ridiculous.”

In any case, national Republicans say ignoring tea party concerns — even after beating tea party candidates — is a mistake.

“Saying, ‘Hey, no problem, the grass roots — forget about them. We’re the party of Dole, McCain, Bush, Pat Roberts, Lamar Alexander, Thad Cochran.’ That is not the way to go,” conservative columnist Bill Kristol said on MSNBC on Friday.

Words and deeds

The back-and-forth over the Kansas primary has played out in other states, suggesting a significant challenge in reconciling the GOP’s tea party and moderate wings: Their differences may be more about hurt feelings and tone than actual policy.

Mainstream Republicans aren’t the only ones using aggressive language, after all. Tea partiers routinely refer to RINOs — Republicans in name only — and bitterly criticize GOP “capitulation” on government funding bills and extending the debt limit.

“I pick up a trend with the tea party people to be kind of mean and dogmatic in their approach,” said Ronnie Metsker, chairman of the Johnson County Republican Party. “It’s not so much what they say as how they say it, and their behavior, and their demeanor.”

Johnson of the Missouri Alliance for Freedom admits the finger-pointing can get out of hand.

“We don’t help ourselves when we call them RINOs,” he said.

There are efforts from both GOP wings to tone down the name-calling as November approaches. Mainstream Republicans say that starts with crediting the tea party for sharpening the GOP’s approach to government, even if its candidates fall short.

“The tea party is still a force, anchoring the party to its core conservative principles,” said Republican consultant Travis Smith in an email. “Ignore them at your own peril.”

But calm rhetoric only lasts so long for a movement founded on oversized public outrage and concern.

“Only pansies,” tea party talk show host Dana Loesch tweeted on primary day, “demand apologies from someone over hurt feelings.”

To reach Dave Helling, call 816-234-4656 or send email to