After a series of humbling defeats in the 2012 elections, the conservative activists better known as the Tea Party are going back to the drawing board in their attempts to build a Republican majority in the Senate.
But despite blowing up to five winnable Senate races over the past two election cycles by nominating extreme right-wing candidates — Ken Buck in Colorado, Sharron Angle in Nevada, Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, Richard Mourdock in Indiana, and Todd Akin in Missouri — the Tea Party is not ready to give up its strategy of attacking moderate (but electable) Republicans.
As Tea Party Nation founder Judson Phillips recently told the Wall Street Journal, “If we choose someone who runs a content-free campaign and is left of center, at least within the Republican Party, we will get our butts kicked.”
With that warning in mind, several high-profile Republicans should be wary of primary challenges similar to the ones that felled Bob Bennett in 2010 and Richard Lugar in 2012. Here are five Republican senators who are likely to face serious Tea Party opposition in the 2014 midterms:
Graham, the senior senator from South Carolina, has long been a target of the Tea Party due to his occasional willingness to collaborate with Democrats, and his perceived liberal views (especially in comparison to his Palmetto State colleague, Tea Party hero Jim DeMint.) Graham’s recent declaration that he would violate Grover Norquist’s “Taxpayer Protection Pledge” is just more fuel for that fire.
Graham is already preparing for the inevitable fight; when asked in February if he fears a primary challenge in 2014, he replied “no, I don’t fear one; I expect one.”
Georgia senator Saxby Chambliss has also attracted the Tea Party’s attention by disavowing Norquist’s pledge. Chambliss himself acknowledged that voting to raise taxes would almost certainly draw him into a contentious primary, but he doesn’t sound too worried about the challenge.
“I don’t worry about that because I care too much about my country,” Chambliss told Georgia news station WMAZ. “I care a lot more about it than I do Grover Norquist.”
Tennessee Tea Party groups are already targeting Alexander for a primary challenge due to his vote against blocking an Environmental Protection Agency regulation last July.
“He is much too close to the Democrats,” Murfreesboro Tea Party activist Katherine Hudgins told the Wall Street Journal. “We believe he’s an environmentalist at heart. He’s gone to the dark side.”
Right-wing Republicans often lash out against Collins, the pro-choice senator from Maine who is generally considered to be the most likely Republican to cross the aisle and vote with Senate Democrats.
Despite her precarious footing within her own party, however, Collins may be saved in 2014 by a lack of credible Republican opponents to face her in the primaries.
As the consummate “Washington insider,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is a prime target for a Tea Party challenge. The fact that McConnell lost a high-profile battle within the Kentucky GOP in 2010 — when Tea Party favorite Rand Paul upset McConnell’s protege Trey Grayson in a contentious primary — only increases the odds that he will be challenged from the right in 2014.
McConnell has already gone out of his way to inoculate himself against such a primay, however, mending fences with Paul — and even hiring Ron Paul’s former campaign manager Jesse Benton to steer his re-election effort.