Tea Party Challengers Falling Short In GOP Primaries

May 21, 2014
Originally published on May 21, 2014 2:51 pm

Six states held primaries on Tuesday in what turned out to be the Super Tuesday of the 2014 mid-term election cycle.

Among the many races, one of the most noteworthy was in Kentucky, where Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell beat out Tea Party challenger Matt Bevin. In fact, overall it seemed GOP voters chose “establishment” Republicans over Tea Party activists.

Matt Kibbe, president and CEO of FreedomWorks, a national Tea Party-aligned 501(c)(4) that advocates for small government, joins Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson to discuss what’s next for the Tea Party.

Hobson then turns to NPR’s digital politics editor Charlie Mahtesian to discuss the election results and what to now expect in the coming midterm elections.


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From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.


I'm Robin Young. It's HERE AND NOW. In a few minutes, the floods in Bosnia, they're being called the worst catastrophe in the country's history, and they just had a brutal war in the mid-1990s.

HOBSON: But first let's get to reaction from yesterday's primary elections. One of the most powerful Republicans in Washington, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, managed to hold off a Tea Party challenge from Matt Bevin. Establishment candidates also beat Tea Party challengers in Ohio - in Idaho, Texas and Georgia. So what is next for the Tea Party?

Joining us now is Matt Kibbe, president and CEO of the Tea Party group FreedomWorks. And Matt, the headline in the Washington Post today says the Tea Party isn't just losing, it's losing badly. What's your take?

MATT KIBBE: You know, I think so much focus on our challenges to entrenched incumbents probably misses the longer message here and the long-run efforts that we're pursuing. We're trying to change the narrative. We're trying to change the makeup of the Republican Party, how they run and more importantly how they'll govern should they win the Senate majority.

We did have some victories last night in House seats like Barry Loudermilk in Georgia's 11th District, but we also lost our fight against Mitch McConnell. And I think the outcome of that is a Mitch McConnell that rediscovered his conservatism in the process of defending his seat.

HOBSON: So you're calling the Mitch McConnell victory, which you opposed, a win for the Tea Party?

KIBBE: Well, we're shifting the conversation. Obviously I would have rather Matt Bevin won that fight, but ultimately it's not about who we send to Washington, it's what they do once they get there, and that's what we're focused on.

HOBSON: But then doesn't it bring up the question of the identity of the Tea Party, whether it is in fact a separate movement, or it's just the right wing of the Republican Party?

KIBBE: Well, and that's the argument we're having with Republicans. I don't think it's the right wing of the Republican Party. I think it's a bloc of voters that would show up for either party should they authentically represent the values of fiscal conservatism reigning in Washington.

But the fact of the matter is Republicans typically are more likely to offer that alternative than Democrats today. So we're looking for opportunities where they exist, but our loyalty is to ideas, not parties.

HOBSON: When it comes to Mitch McConnell, you've said he talks a good game but has never acted the way that he promised that he would. Are you convinced now that he will act the way that you would like him to?

KIBBE: No, and I would never, I would never take that on faith, and that's why what our grassroots movement does the day after the election is so important. It's not enough to send people that say the right thing to Washington, D.C. It's very important that we hold them accountable 365 days a year.

HOBSON: But you're supporting him?

KIBBE: No, we have not supported him yet.

HOBSON: Do you think you will?

KIBBE: We're waiting to see where he's going to be.

HOBSON: That's Matt Kibbe, president and CEO of FreedomWorks. Matt, thank you so much.

KIBBE: Thank you, sir.

HOBSON: And let's turn now to Charlie Mahtesian, politics editor for NPR. He's with us from Washington. Charlie, not a sign of support there, it sounds like, from Matt Kibbe. What is Mitch McConnell going to have to do to bring those Tea Party supporters along?

CHARLES MAHTESIAN, BYLINE: Well, first off, I think he needs to be smart about his victory, and by that I mean no touchdown dance, no rubbing their noses in it, because McConnell is not a wildly popular politician in Kentucky to begin with, and in fact his approval ratings are rather low. So he can't really afford to alienate any voters who largely share his ideology.

But I think more important, McConnell needs to do the kind of traditional post-primary outreach, things like extending a hand of friendship, forgetting the past, and also getting Tea Party voters focused on the one issue that unites them, and that is the opportunity to oust Harry Reid and the Democrats from power. And that starts of course with re-electing Mitch McConnell.

HOBSON: And would you say overall, if you look at yesterday's primaries, that it was a win for the establishment?

MAHTESIAN: I do think it was. When you take a look across the board, you didn't see any incumbents who got a challenge from the right get taken down, either in the House or the Senate, and I think what it reflects is that, you know, the Republican establishment or traditional conservatives, whoever you want to call them, they are finally fighting back against the Tea Party, and they're winning, there's no question about it. And that was the clear lesson last week, or last night, and I think that's a theme that has infused the primary season debate.

And that doesn't mean that the Tea Party is dead or not having a significant impact. It's just that the establishment controls the commanding heights these days.

HOBSON: Charlie, yesterday was the first statewide election in Arkansas that required voters to bring ID to the polls, but Republican Asa Hutchinson, who won the nomination for the governor's race actually forgot his ID when he went to vote.

MAHTESIAN: Yeah, that was the quintessential gotcha story, wasn't it, Jeremy. In the first new test - in the first test of a new law requiring voters to show photo ID, an issue, of course, that Republicans nationwide have advocated...


MAHTESIAN: ...in that first test, the likely Republican nominee for governor couldn't vote because he didn't have his own ID. In the end, of course, he was able to get an aide to retrieve his ID so he could vote, but since most Americans don't go to the polls with an aide in tow, this is obviously a pretty embarrassing situation.

HOBSON: Indeed, and as we look forward now to the midterms, although there are more primaries coming up, what notes do you take from yesterday about what the Democrats are going to be facing this fall?

MAHTESIAN: Well, I think they're going to see probably a more united Republican Party than they've seen in the past, meaning Republicans have nominated the kind of candidates that the establishment had hoped they would nominate, candidates that have some experience running, candidates that are less prone to making outrageous statements that destroy their candidacies.

And the Republican establishment has to be pretty happy with the kinds of nominees that have developed. I mean I think if you look back six months ago over at National Republican Headquarters and told them, you know, you would've gotten the lineup of candidates that you got last night out of the May 20 primaries, they'd be pretty happy if they had known that.

HOBSON: What are the big primary races that are still to come?

MAHTESIAN: Well, the next one comes in two weeks, and that's on June 3. That's the next busy primary day, and that's when we'll see Republicans pick Senate nominees in a couple of states, the most important of which is Mississippi. That's where longtime Republican incumbent Thad Cochran is getting a pretty tough primary challenge from a Tea Party-backed state legislator.

There's some polling that suggests it's a pretty close race, and what we've seen there is that the Republican establishment has really rallied to Senator Cochran's defense. So that's the next big one, I think, on the near-term horizon.

HOBSON: And does it look at this point like Republicans have a good shot at taking over the Senate?

MAHTESIAN: Yeah, it's definitely within reach, and Republicans, when you talk to them, certainly here in Washington and also outside the Beltway, Republicans are increasingly confident about their prospects. As you know, the Republicans need to pick up or net six seats in November to win control of the Senate, and when you look at the landscape, there are more than enough opportunities to do that.

But first what they need to do is, number one, protect seats like Mitch McConnell's. They need to win a few of the open Senate seats that are out there. And then they'll also need to pick off a few vulnerable Democratic incumbents, and those are the Democratic incumbents that are sitting in states that Mitt Romney carried in 2012.

And so I think if you were to look at the Senate map, what you'd see is that the road to a Senate majority for the Republican Party runs through the South. There are a couple of seats there that definitely have to be picked up by the Republican Party in order to win a majority.

HOBSON: Charles Mahtesian, NPR politics editor, thanks so much.

MAHTESIAN: Thanks, Jeremy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.