By KYLE CHENEY, POLITICO
In a dozen interviews with POLITICO this week, tea party leaders, failed candidates and small government activists dissected a primary season that saw their best candidates vanquished by establishment Republicans who were once considered vulnerable. The story repeated itself six times: in Texas, Kentucky, South Carolina, Mississippi, Kansas and Tennessee, where Sen. Lamar Alexander dispatched state lawmaker Joe Carr on Thursday. Alexander’s win virtually ensures that for the first election cycle since 2008, not a single Republican senator will lose his seat in a primary.
Explanations and excuses abound: One tea party activist blamed Rand Paul. A conservative candidate fingered outside groups, saying they talked a good game but didn’t follow through. Another failed contender said voters were too timid to defy incumbents. And grass-roots figures lamented flawed candidates.
Bill Connor, who challenged South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham in a seven-way Republican primary, said he was baited into the race with promises of financial support from tea party groups, only to be abandoned. Graham crushed a half-dozen competitors, including Connor, and avoided a runoff.
“It felt a bit like sticking the neck out and being left in the cold,” Connor, an attorney and Army Ranger, said, adding that he was prepared to pump $300,000 of his own money into the race if he felt like he had more support. “I do think it was winnable.”
Although he didn’t name names, Connor was endorsed during his run by prominent tea party leaders in South Carolina and activists affiliated with major groups like Tea Party Patriots and FreedomWorks.
Taking out Graham was always seen as unlikely. In Kentucky, though, at the start of the year it looked like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell might have a serious fight against tea party-backed businessman Matt Bevin. Yet McConnell prevailed by more than 20 points and left the tea party picking through the wreckage.
Bevin says the loss was, in part, about voters being too timid to pick someone new, even if they didn’t like the guy they had.
“We have increasingly less courage in our country and that’s something we suffer from,” he said. “It’s disappointing to me not even as much as a candidate, but as an American, how apathetic and timid we have become as a nation.”
Bevin said voters considered him but ultimately picked a candidate who could “bring home the bacon” in the form of federal dollars. “There is still the perception, even though deep down everyone knows that the federal government is broke, they think, ‘Well, we might get some goodies.’”
Bevin also suffered from self-inflicted wounds — including a revelation he once backed the federal bank bailout and once spoke at a pro-cockfighting rally — but one tea party activist pinned at least some of the blame on Paul. The likely 2016 candidate endorsed McConnell more than a year before the primary.
“The single biggest thing was Rand Paul. Him endorsing Mitch McConnell early on really limited the activists we could convince to join us,” said Andrew Schachtner, president of the Louisville Tea Party and a former Bevin staffer.
“Some people, they just want to play it safe,” he said. “They don’t want to rock the boat.”
Bevin wasn’t the only once-promising candidate to harm his own cause. The right’s favored candidate in Kansas, Milton Wolf — a doctor — was discovered to have posted X-rays of gunshot victims on his Facebook page along with crude jokes. The controversy that ensued stunted Wolf’s momentum, and he lost on Tuesday by 7 points to incumbent Sen. Pat Roberts.
But the candidates themselves said little about their own foibles, pointing instead to the challenges of financing a race against deep-pocketed incumbents with powerful, entrenched allies.
Conservative operatives said the financiers of these upstart campaigns sat on their hands while promising prospects floundered. Connor said it might be time to encourage conservatives to donate directly to the candidates they support. “That may be a wiser use of money for those that are part of the conservative movement,” he said.
Money — specifically the failure of conservative groups and activists to deliver it — was the most commonly cited culprit in the interviews. Campaign finance filings underscore a theme among the electoral losers: Outside conservative groups may have vocally supported primary challengers, but they didn’t always open their wallets.
In Kansas, for example, Wolf was the beneficiary of $600,000 in ads attacking incumbent Sen. Pat Roberts, a top tea party target, funded by the Senate Conservatives Fund and Tea Party Patriots. Other big players on the right — Club for Growth and FreedomWorks — sat out the race.