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MOMENTUM: Chris McDaniel, Det Bowers, and Matt Bevin (from top to bottom).
McDaniel: Rogelio V. Solis/AP • Bowers: Handout • Bevin: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images
MOMENTUM: Chris McDaniel, Det Bowers, and Matt Bevin (from top to bottom).

Rebels from the right

Politics | A small group of tea party upstarts is taking on establishment—and very well-funded—Senate Republicans in primaries this summer

Issue: "Coat of many dollars," May 3, 2014

WASHINGTON—Mitch McConnell did not mince words last month with his prediction about the upcoming elections. “I think we are going to crush them everywhere,” said the Senate Republican leader from Kentucky.

But McConnell was not talking about crushing the Democrats this November. His target is a wing of conservatives within the Republican Party who are mounting challenges to the GOP’s Washington establishment.

With some lawmakers having been in Washington for as long as 40 years, what amounts to a permanent political class has been established. Meanwhile the nation’s debt has ballooned to $17 trillion and counting. But in primaries from May to August, six of the 12 Republican senators seeking reelection will face opponents from the right. In the tea party’s fifth year of existence some are pointing to these races to see whether the group can sustain a political machine that can do more than hold rallies.

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McConnell’s promise, providing a peek at how the party’s old guard views the tea party movement, served as fighting words to these conservative candidates and the groups backing them. “What kind of leader wants to crush the very people that he expects like sheep to then get in line and follow along behind him?” asked Matt Bevin, the Louisville businessman facing McConnell in Kentucky’s May 20 primary. “I am not a person who has ever been moved by bullies. I say bring it on.”

McConnell and his band of incumbents have been bringing it by unleashing mounds of advertising money from mammoth campaign war chests that could only be amassed by those who have been in power for decades. To overcome these fundraising roadblocks underdogs like Bevin are turning to outside groups like FreedomWorks, Heritage Action for America, Tea Party Patriots, and the Senate Conservatives Fund. These groups are paying for radio and television commercials and opening field offices in many primary states. The dispatched staffs are leading outreach efforts from phone banking to neighborhood walking and arming the challengers with the latest micro-targeting technology to identify like-minded primary voters to get out to the polls.

“This is something I think the establishment has never faced before,” said Drew Ryun, with the Madison Project, an organization backing conservatives in 14 races this year. “We have people I think for the first time really employing the right kind of tactics. And the conservative side has a lot of momentum. There are a lot of people who really want to see change in D.C.”

This is the third election cycle since the tea party’s creation. In 2010, tea party victories brought a wave of conservatives to Congress. A few more won election in 2012, most notably Sen. Ted Cruz from Texas. But these lawmakers have often butted heads with the Washington elite, and Ryun says “we need to send them reinforcements.”

The tea party’s frustration with Washington Republicans continues to grow due to recent rollbacks on hard-won fiscal victories. A new Republican-backed budget undid some of the automatic spending cuts established in last year’s sequestration deal. And the latest increase in the federal government’s borrowing limit did not contain any spending reductions. “I don’t think people realized how deeply entrenched the GOP establishment is in maintaining the status quo,” said Ryun. “Their ideology has become remaining in power and the money that comes from being in power.”

But developing the political machinery to win won’t work if the candidates out front are not viable. Part of the maturation process of the tea party has included taking more time to vet the candidates. Groups have learned from watching some tea party–backed candidates flounder on the campaign trail due to bad cases of foot-in-mouth disease and lose winnable races in such red states as Missouri and Indiana.

The crop of conservative challengers answering the call for this primary season includes some who have never before run for political office but who claim they possess the real-world experiences missing from the résumés for most of Washington’s career politicians. Some of these challengers are evangelical Christians who have suffered from personal and professional hardships that may steel them for future challenges. They include a lawyer, a pastor, and a businessman.

Chris McDaniel, challenging six-term incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran from Mississippi, has attended the same Baptist church in Ellisville, Miss., for more than 30 years. His conservative roots, he says, came from his faith and his father. In 1999, McDaniel accompanied his father to pick up a new car. Heading home at night along a country road, a truck pulled in front of the car driven by McDaniel’s dad. McDaniel, driving behind his father, managed to avoid the collision by swerving his vehicle into a ditch. He jumped out of his car and rushed to his father. He tried everything he could to save him, but his father, 57, died right beside McDaniel.

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