Establishment Republicans are increasingly looking like they’ll be able to stave off a wave of right-wing challenges in the 2014 Senate races and avoid a repeat of the stumbles that cost them dearly in 2010 and 2012, but the tea party may not come away completely empty handed.
In both Oklahoma and Nebraska, the Senate candidates who are the darlings of the tea-party-aligned conservative outside groups appear to have risen to the level of serious contender in their respective GOP primaries. Polling has been scant but what few surveys there have been have shown Midland University President Ben Sasse in Nebraska and former House Speaker T.W. Shannon (pictured) in Oklahoma as serious contenders for their party’s nomination. That puts them in line to take those seats since Democrats are not expected to seriously contend in the general elections in either state.
The addition of two more seats to the Ted Cruz wing of the Senate Republican conference would be a substantial gain for tea partiers and complicate the job of Mitch McConnell if becomes Senate majority leader.
Sasse is now being described as the frontrunner in a very close race, where the primary will be held May 13. The Washington Post recently reported that Sasse “has appeared to move to the head of a multi-candidate pack.” The Weekly Standard also described Sasse as the frontrunner. Sasse has also outraised his chief rival, former state Treasurer Shane Osborn, in fundraising.
Similarly, Shannon has quickly emerged “as a formidable candidate,” and the former Oklahoma House speaker has also kept up fundraising with Rep. Jim Lankford (R-OK), the early frontrunner. Shannon has quickly moved from being a longshot candidate to the main rival of Lankford, MSNBC reported. The Oklahoma primary is on June 24.
The increasing prominence of Sasse and Shannon comes as establishment Republicans elsewhere, such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), have either locked up their party’s nomination or are looking more and more likely to clinch it.
Polling by independent pollsters has been thin in both races. In Nebraska, a May 1 poll by NSON Opinion Strategy for the Tea Party Express (which backs Sasse) showed him slightly leading former state Osborn, 29 to 27. A Feb. 5 Conservative Intel poll found Sasse trailing but closing in on Osborn when months earlier he barely registered in their survey with 3 percent support.
Meanwhile, an April 23 poll by the Republican Public Opinion Strategies on behalf of the pro-Shannon Oklahomans for a Conservative Future showed Shannon surging past Lankford, 42 to 32.
Sasse’s association with the Senate Conservatives Fund (which released a new supporting ad for him on Tuesday) has resulted in a scolding by McConnell, who is the number one target of the conservative outside group. Meanwhile, when Palin campaigned for Shannon she said, if elected, Shannon would be an ally of the anti-establishment tea partiers that have been a stubborn thorn in GOP leadership’s side.
“We’ve got to send them some reinforcements. And Oklahoma’s contribution to that worthy effort is T.W. Shannon,” Palin said.
Lankford has had to acknowledge Shannon as a threat since he’s gotten into the race and hasn’t held his punches.
“What are Oklahomans looking for?” Lankford told The New York Times. “Are they looking to have a celebrity, or are they looking for somebody to be able to solve their problems?”
The latest feuding surrounding one of these candidates is with Sasse. Redstate.com’s Erick Erickson wrote a blog post Monday hitting Justin Brasell, Rep. Tom Cotton’s (R-AR) campaign manager, for helping to found a super PAC that’s attacking Sasse.
“Does Tom Cotton want the Democrats to win?” Erickson wrote. “If not, is he cool with his campaign manager attacking a Republican just as he is headed into a general election against the Democrats?”
The move has been portrayed as an example of establishment Republicans trying to cut down a favored tea party candidate who has a real chance of winning.
“Just look at the hundreds of thousands McConnell’s super pac is spending against Sasse,” Daniel Horowitz, the policy director for The Madison Project, a conservative outside group that’s boosted Sasse’s candidacy told TPM. “It’s pretty rare for a sitting party leader to work against a guy in an open Republican seat the way McConnell has done. He is scared of him for good reason.”
American Enterprise Institute congressional scholar Norm Ornstein in an interview with TPM said that wins by Shannon and Sasse would fall under a victory for tea partiers rather than establishment Republicans. He said the candidates have a serious chance of winning their party’s nomination and the Senate seats.
“Yeah, I think you would say that, but here, again, it’s also important to realize that while the more of these candidates prevail, the more headaches it will raise for establishment leaders, because they’re likely to be dealing with people who are not going to show much evidence of discipline when they want them to compromise and the more that will alter the rhetoric and center of gravity within the Republican Party,” Ornstein told TPM.
Still, Ornstein said, that’s better than a situation where someone like Sasse knocks off an incumbent Republican or where a hard right candidate gets the nomination and risks Republicans’ chances of winning the general election seat.
“But there’s also a real difference if you’re looking at this the way Karl Rove would where your main interest is the body’s number that you have,” Ornstein said.