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Can the tea party get its groove back?

BY Domenico Montanaro, Terence Burlij, Rachel Wellford and Simone Pathe  May 13, 2014 at 9:08 AM EDT
Hundreds showed up on the Boston Common for an anti-tax tea party rally in April 2013. Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Hundreds showed up on the Boston Common for an anti-tax tea party rally in April 2013. Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The Morning Line

Today in the Morning Line:

  • Tea party could get first win of cycle – but other side isn’t playing
  • Tough primary season likely to continue for tea party
  • Losing the element of surprise
  • Races to watch in West Virginia
  • Boehner says he’s on borrowed time

A tea party score…: It’s been a rough go this primary season for the tea party, but it could get a win Tuesday in Nebraska. (Voters also head to the polls in West Virginia.) Tea party-backed candidate Ben Sasse, president of Midland University, is favored to win by high single digits, according to one operative privy to polling on the race. But it’s been a pretty fluid three-way contest, and there could be a surprise, warned another adviser with one of the campaigns. The dark horse is Omaha banker Ben Dinsdale, who has poured in $1 million of his own money and has surged into second in public polling past Shane Osborn, a former state treasurer who was originally favored in the race. Ad spending tells the story. More than 90 percent of outside money has gone to support Sasse (more on that below) with some big-name anti-establishment groups playing, like the Senate Conservatives Fund, Club for Growth, Citizens United and 60 Plus. But missing are big-name ESTABLISHMENT groups like the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the Karl Rove Crossroads groups. Translation: The tea party can still get a win… when the establishment doesn’t challenge.

…But it’s probably limited: Beyond Nebraska, there aren’t a whole lot of other opportunities shaping up over the next couple of weeks for the tea party and anti-establishment groups. Here’s how things have gone so far:

  • March 4: Primary to Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. Loss.
  • May 6: North Carolina Senate primary. Loss.
  • May 6: Primary to House Speaker John Boehner. Loss.
  • May 6: Primary to Rep. David Joyce, R-Ohio. Loss.

By our count, that’s at least 0-for-4 with few high-profile wins likely coming. On May 20, for example, there are several tea party targets, but none seem to be in real danger: Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., looks to be on a glidepath; tea party-aligned Reps. Phil Gingrey and Paul Broun are polling at the bottom of the heap in the Georgia Senate primary; in Idaho, the Club for Growth, aligned with tea party activists, was playing heavily against Rep. Mike Simpson for the May 20 primary, but the club now appears to be waving the the white flag. Then on June 3, incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., who looked like a ripe target, is up double digits against his tea party opponent. The establishment is doing all it can there to insure a Cochran win, having unloaded the oppo file on challenger Chris McDaniel.

What happens when you lose the element of surprise: That means the tea party’s best shot at another win is the May 27 Texas runoff for lieutenant governor. Yes, lieutenant governor. It’s important, because if the tea party candidate wins there, that would give Leticia Van de Putte, a Latina Democrat, a chance at picking up the powerful seat that would put her in launchpad for the governorship in four years (if she wins). The tea party is also trying to upend Rep. Eric Cantor in Virginia, but that’s an effort that appears highly unlikely to succeed. Over the last two cycles, tea party candidates were able to pull off some surprising victories and, in turn, may have cost Republicans as many as five Senate seats. The problem now, though, for the tea party is it’s just not surprising anyone anymore. When you lose the element of surprise, there’s only so long you can go with just slings and arrows. The establishment is taking nothing for granted and spending a lot to make sure it has what it sees as its best candidates to take on Democrats in the fall. But, in many ways, the tea party has already won. It re-wrote the script in 2010 and 2012, and Republicans have been looking over their right shoulder since.

Nebraska ad spending tells the story: Back to the Nebraska ad spending, there has been about $3 million spent on broadcast and cable ads in this race, according to ad-buying information from one of the campaigns shared with Morning Line. Half of that has come from outside groups (some of which seem like new groups). And 93 percent of that outside money has gone to support Sasse. In all, with candidate spending factored in, about two out of every three ads run in this campaign went to support Sasse. Here’s a breakdown:

Candidates
Osborn: $561,000
Dinsdale: $477,000
Sasse: $459,000
Bart McLeay: $58,000
Total candidate spending: $1.56 million

Outside groups (All pro-Sasse except Special Ops for America)
Legacy Foundation Action Fund: $412,000
Senate Conservatives Fund: $306,000
Club for Growth: $287,000
60 Plus: $224,000
Citizens United: $136,000
Special Operations for America (Pro-Osborn): $113,000
Ensuring a Conservative Nebraska: $64,000
Total outside spending: $1.54 million
Pro-Sasse outside spending: $1.43 million
Grand Total pro-Sasse spending: $1.9 million
Grand Total Non-Sasse spending: $1.2 million

They’re also voting in West Virginia: Much of the focus this year is on the Mountain State’s Senate race, but there is little drama when it comes to who the nominees will be this fall. The retirement of Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller opened up this seat, which is now very likely to be put into the GOP’s column. Republicans landed a top-tier recruit with Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, while West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant is the clear favorite for the Democratic nod. Capito has more than $4 million in the bank, giving her a four-to-one cash-on-hand advantage over Tennant. This is a contest Republicans are counting on picking up in November to help them gain the six seats they need to win back control of the Senate.

A toss-up House race: Elsewhere in the state, there are a couple of primaries to keep an eye on in the 2nd and 3rd Congressional Districts. There is a crowded Republican field in the 2nd District, where seven candidates are competing for the chance to succeed Capito. Former Maryland state Sen. Alex Mooney has dished out the most money on the Republican side. Former state Democratic Party chairman Nick Casey is expected to win the Democratic contest. In the 3rd District, meanwhile, Democratic Rep. Nick Rahall faces a primary challenge from retired Army Major Richard Ojeda. Rahall has spent more than $500,000 so far and should easily defeat Ojeda, who raised less than $20,000. If Rahall doesn’t win convincingly, it might suggest trouble ahead against likely Republican candidate Evan Jenkins in a race that Stu Rothenberg projects to be a pure toss-up. The contest has already attracted the attention of outside groups, with the AP reporting that the conservative Americans for Prosperity has spent about $750,000 on the race, while the pro-Democrat House Majority PAC has purchased about $625,000 in ads.

Quote of the day: “Listen, I’m going to be 65 years old in November … I never thought I’d live to be 60. So I’m living on borrowed time.” — John Boehner speaking Monday in San Antonio, stopping short of committing to serve another full two-year term as speaker of the House.

Daily Presidential Trivia: On this day in 1969, President Nixon called for a draft lottery, with 19-year-olds going first. Which president first established the draft? Be the first to Tweet us the correct answer using #PoliticsTrivia, and you’ll get a Morning Line shout-out. No one guessed Monday’s trivia correctly. The answer was: Operation Oak Tree.

LINE ITEMS

  • Keith Crisco, the man who was trailing Clay Aiken by 369 votes in North Carolina’s 2nd Congressional District Democratic primary, died suddenly Monday.

  • Joni Ernst, the frontrunner for the GOP Senate nomination in Iowa, says she believes there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. She has since backtracked her comments, now saying she knows there weren’t any in Iraq at the time of the U.S. invasion.

  • The Des Moines Register’s Jennifer Jacobs reports that Ernst picked up the endorsement of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday.

  • Republicans filibustered a procedural vote Monday night on the Shaheen-Portman energy bill, likely denying the Senate a binding vote on the Keystone XL pipeline before November.

  • The AP looks at the rise of closed session meetings between elected officials, big donors and think-tank groups who help write and influence legislation.

  • President Obama will award Kyle J. White, a former active duty Army Sergeant, the Medal of Honor Tuesday. White was serving as a Platoon Radio Telephone Operator in Nuristan Province, Afghanistan, when his team was ambushed by Taliban forces. White managed to save members of his unit while outnumbered and under heavy fire.

  • The president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Tom Donohue, joked Monday that the Republican Party “shouldn’t bother to run a candidate in 2016” unless Congress passes immigration reform this year.

  • The investigation of the Benghazi consulate attack by the recently appointed select committee will continue, according to Speaker John Boehner, even if Democrats opt to boycott.

  • Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, called for the Senate to create a joint committee with the House to investigate Benghazi late Monday. His request was quickly denied.

  • Sen. Pat Roberts will be able to seek a fourth term after the state objections board in Kansas rejected a claim that the GOP lawmaker was not truly a resident of the state. A group of Kansas residents had objected to Roberts being listed on the August 5 primary ballot, contending the senator lived in Alexandria, Va., outside Washington, and not Dodge City, Kan., where he is registered to vote.

  • Democratic Sen. Mark Begich could get a boost from ballot initiatives this November after Alaska legislators failed to meet the deadline to consider three measures on marijuana, minimum wage and the environment, automatically shifting them to the general election.

  • The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has made over $3 million in independent expenditures on fall TV reservations for Begich.

  • Karl Rove, a former advisor to George W. Bush and current Fox News contributor, intimated that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton could have brain damage, following her 2012 hospital stint for a blood clot.

  • The Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Henry Gomez looks at the rise of Ohio Gov. John Kasich in a multi-part profile. His piece Tuesday focuses on Kasich’s time at Ohio State University and his successful campaigns for state Senate and Congress.

  • Speaker Boehner is urging former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to run for the presidency in 2016, saying that, “Historically, our best candidates have come from the ranks of governors, or former governors.”

  • A bill that would end life sentences without parole for minors is awaiting the signature of Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie.

  • During a visit to the White House Monday, Uruguayan President José Mujica told Mr. Obama that the U.S. needs to become bilingual and urge people to stop smoking.

  • On Tuesday, a federal appeals court in Richmond begins their review of a Norfolk judge’s decision to overturn Virginia’s ban on gay marriage.

  • The tea party continues to fall behind GOP establishment candidates in the midterm polls.

  • Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, is calling for a review of the state’s strict regulations for abortion clinics.

  • A new report from the Federal Bureau of Investigation shows that the number of law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty in last year decreased by 44 percent from 2012. Attorney General Eric Holder will deliver remarks at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund’s 26th annual candlelight vigil Tuesday night.

  • The Washington Post reports that midterm enthusiasm is at a ten-year low.

  • Keep an eye on the Rundown blog for breaking news throughout the day, our home page for show segments, and follow @NewsHour for the latest.

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Questions or comments? Email Domenico Montanaro at dmontanaro-at-newshour-dot-org or Terence Burlij at tburlij-at-newshour-dot-org.

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