Short-lived tea party victories?

Posted at 9:24 PM, May 14, 2014
and last updated 2014-05-14 21:24:02-04

(CNN) — They were much needed victories for the tea party movement. And major tea party and anti-establishment GOP groups were quick to celebrate.

But the wins Tuesday night by Ben Sasse in the Republican Senate primary in Nebraska and Alex Mooney in the GOP contest in West Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District might be some of the last those on the right will celebrate this primary season. Anti-establishment candidates face long odds in upcoming GOP primaries.

In Nebraska, Sasse won easily, beating the original favorite in the race, former state treasurer Shane Osborn, who was backed by some in the Republican establishment, and Omaha banker Ben Dinsdale, who thanks to an infusion of $1 million of his own money, surged in the polls in the campaign’s closing weeks.

Sasse in recent weeks he won the support of a bunch of tea party and other conservative groups, and high-profile leaders on the right like former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah, and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.

Sasse is now considered the favorite over Democratic trial attorney David Domina in the heavily Republican state’s November general election. The winner of that race will succeed retiring GOP Sen. MIke Johanns.

Minutes after the race was called, major national tea party groups fired off victorious emails.

“Ben Sasse’s upset victory is a testament to the power of an empowered and relentless grassroots community,” said FreedomWorks for America President Matt Kibbe.

“Ben Sasse’s victory in the Nebraska Senate Republican Primary shows the strength of the conservative movement,” added ForAmerica Chairman Brent Bozell.

And Cruz, who joined Lee and Palin at a recent Sasse rally in Nebraska, said, “Ben Sasse’s decisive victory in Nebraska tonight is a clear indication that the grassroots are rising up to make D.C. listen. They’re rising up to take our country back.”

In West Virginia, conservative Mooney beat out six other GOP contenders. Mooney was backed by a number of tea party groups and other conservative organizations.

Those groups said the victories in both states prove their movement is alive and well.

“Political pundits love to role-play as coroners, but they aren’t very good at it.” Tea Party Express Executive Director Taylor Budowich said. “For the past week the mainstream media has been pushing the recycled ‘Tea Party is Dead’ headlines, but tonight’s results show how again they’ve got it wrong. What these pundits don’t understand is the power of the grassroots and the broad appeal of the Tea Party’s message of fiscal responsibility and economic growth.”

“The victories of Ben Sasse and Alex Mooney tonight, coupled with the victory of Curt Clawson in Florida in late April, prove the Tea Party’s momentum is continuing to roar forward.”

Overall score

The wins in Nebraska and West Virginia came a week after candidates backed by tea party and other anti-establishment groups lost in the North Carolina GOP Senate primary to state House Speaker Thom Tillis, the more moderate candidate.

And earlier this year in Texas, Sen. John Cornyn, the second-ranking Republican in the chamber, easily beat back a primary challenge from the right. And longtime GOP Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas cruised to victory over a tea party activist in his primary.

The road ahead doesn’t look any kinder to tea party-backed candidates:

May 20: Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is being challenged by businessman Matt Bevin, who enjoys strong support from many tea party groups and influential conservative organizations.

While this race has seen big spending — both by the campaigns and from outside groups — the McConnell is expected to cruise to renomination for his sixth term. But he faces a serious challenge in November from rising Democratic star Alison Lundergan Grimes, whom big-name Democrats are already campaigning for.

In Georgia, Republican Reps. Phil Gingrey, Paul Broun and Jack Kingston, former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel, and businessman David Perdue are the major candidates in a free-for-all GOP Senate primary. Kingston, Handel, and Perdue, rather than the more conservative Broun and Gingrey, are considered the frontrunners. The winner will face off against Michelle Nunn, the all-but-certain Democratic nominee and daughter of former longtime Sen. Sam Nunn, a household name in Georgia. The winner of the general election will succeed retiring GOP Sen. Saxby Chambliss

In Oregon, Portland pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. Monica Wehby, who enjoys establishment backing, is considered the frontrunner over more conservative state Rep. Jason Conger in the race for the GOP Senate nomination. The winner of that contest will run in November against first-term Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley, who Republicans think might be vulnerable if 2014 turns into a wave year for the GOP.

And in Idaho, there’s a high-profile incumbent-vs.-tea party showdown in the House, where eight-term Rep. Mike Simpson faces a serious primary challenge from conservative favorite Bryan Smith.

June 3: Two weeks later, the establishment-vs.-tea party contest shifts to Mississippi, which is among eight states holding primaries that day.

Six-term Sen. Thad Cochran is facing a serious challenge from state lawmaker Chris McDaniel in Mississippi. Private polling shows Cochran with a comfortable lead, but outside establishment groups are taking nothing for granted.

Has the tea party lost its mojo?

Since its birth in 2009, the tea party movement has had many electoral successes. Primary challenges from the right have produced major headlines for the movement.

But they have also given the GOP lots of headaches and hurt the party’s chances of winning back the Senate from Democrats, effectively costing the GOP five winnable elections the last two cycles in Nevada, Delaware, Colorado, Indiana and Missouri.

So what’s happening this cycle?

“I don’t think we can say that the tea party movement is dead, but there seems to be less enthusiasm among their activists and supporters this year,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor for the non-partisan Cook Political Report, a top campaign handicapper. “Establishment Republicans and incumbents have learned to run against tea party-backed candidates.

And outside help this time may be making a difference.

“I think the Republican establishment is fighting back more than in previous cycles. There is more organization and involvement from outside groups in some of these primaries. I think in the past it was too often an incumbent running against an anti-establishment challenger and a host of outside groups,” said Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the non-partisan Rothenberg Political Report.

Winning by losing

Regardless of the outcome of the primary contests, Amy Kremer says the tea party is already victorious.

“The tea party has already won because we have changed the narrative and the political landscape in Washington. Now, both sides of the aisle express concern about our ballooning national debt,” said Kremer, who just stepped down as chairwoman of the Tea Party Express and is now helping Matt Bevin in his bid to unseat McConnell in Kentucky.

CNN Chief National Correspondent John King agrees.

“The tea party is winning by losing in the sense that you don’t see any Republicans saying, ‘Let’s pass immigration reform that gives a path to citizenship, let’s make it easier for the President to raise the debt ceiling.’ Almost all Republicans have shifted right.”

This war is far from over

Another top strategist says this year’s contests aren’t the final chapter in the struggle between the grassroots and the establishment.

“The party remains deeply divided, and both sides have the resources and commitment needed to take the fight into 2015 and 2016, wrote Stuart Rothenberg, editor and publisher of the Rothenberg Political Report, another top campaign handicapper. “The war is likely to get messier and the division more consequential before the two sides look for ways to bridge their differences. That should please Democrats.”

By CNN Political Editor Paul Steinhauser