Despite whispers to the contrary, 2014 is going to look a lot like 2010

There was a brief moment last year when it seemed establishment Republicans might prevail during 2014 primaries, where voters are the sort least likely to listen to the grand old guard of the GOP. American Crossroads created a spinoff, the Conservative Victory Project, which was fundraising to protect Republican candidates who could win elections from challenges to the right. As the American Crossroads president told the New York Times in February 2013, "There is a broad concern about having blown a significant number of races because the wrong candidates were selected. We don’t view ourselves as being in the incumbent protection business, but we want to pick the most conservative candidate who can win.”


U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) arrives in the subway for a vote whether to raise the debt ceiling at the U.S. Capitol in Washington Feb. 12, 2014. Legislation to extend U.S. federal borrowing authority for a year cleared a critical procedural hurdle in the Senate on Wednesday, moving the measure to a final vote. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

The group raised no money last year. So much for that idea.

Another recent happening on the money front that made observers think times may have changed — Americans for Prosperity, the group responsible for funding most of those upstart tea party campaigns in 2010, has been targeting most of their might in 2014 at Democrats, not Republicans who don't vote along the Prosperity party line. Another sign that perhaps both edges of the Republican Party were willing to work together for their greater good!

Except Americans for Prosperity isn't targeting all their might at Democrats. They're reserving at least $230,000 for ads praising Justin Amash, a tea party Republican elected to a Michigan congressional seat in 2010. Many establishment Republicans favor Amash's opponent, Brian Ellis. The ads aren't attacking Ellis — it's clear that Americans for Prosperity never meant to start a Wrecking Ball-style war over this race — but they also show that the group is far from abandoning the rigorous ideological test they apply to all their favored candidates. For the most-moneyed Republican outside operation of the day, tea still tastes the sweetest, and when it comes to spending so far, 2014 sure looks a whole lot like 2010.

When it comes to electing Republicans, the two sides of the party aren't quite at odds, though. They just have different methods for achieving the same end. To reiterate the Conservative Victory Project logic for how to choose candidates: "we want to pick the most conservative candidate who can win.” Americans for Prosperity thinks the same thing — it tends to think less conservatively about how risky they can be with picking conservatives. In the race to replace Max Baucus in the Senate, Americans for Prosperity has spent $400,000 supporting Montana Representative Steve Daines, who has a considerable lead in the GOP primary. His opponent, Champ Edmunds, is staying in the race despite his long odds, because "Montanans deserve a conservative choice on the ballot ... Steve Daines votes are in line with establishment Republicans like John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Mitch McConnell." In the GOP primary for a senate seat in Texas, Americans for Prosperity has not thrown any money behind Steve Stockman, the representative who has called incumbent John Cornyn, who has a 94 percent rating from Americans for Prosperity, a raging liberal. The Koch's outside group has a good track record with knowing how much conservative they can get away with. 

Governing is a whole other story, however. In the end, establishment and tea party Republicans have the same goal when it comes to campaign strategy: elect Republicans (although their definitions may differ). When it comes to what to do on Capitol Hill, that's where the two sides diverge, and the acrimony reaches heights that illuminate why we're slightly off about the tea party and the GOP. An editorial in the Wall Street Journal lambasted Texas Sen. Ted Cruz — the perfect kind of conservative for a tea party funder — for forcing a 60-vote majority on the debt limit increase this week, the kind of vote that makes "establishment Republicans" terrified because of the visions of attack ads it prompts. The newspaper called Cruz the "minority maker" because of his actions. It's definitely an accurate nickname, but not for the reasons the Journal cites. Cruz and his fellow freshmen are making tea party legislators the Republican establishment, while making the legislators formerly known as the Republican establishment the minority. This isn't a civil war. It's a war of attrition, at least as long as 63 percent of Republicans approve of the tea party, and roughly 49 percent of Republican primary voters affiliate with the tea party.

In many of the GOP primaries, Republicans aren't choosing between a tea party conservative and a Republican establishment candidate. They're choosing between two tea-party conservatives, one with financial backing from Republican outside groups and one without. Is it bad for the Republican Party that they represent a shrinking demographic of the American populace with increasing efficiency and success? Probably, but don't tell that to the people with the power of the purse over the nation's power of the purse. They're pretty pleased with how 2010 turned out, and would love a repeat.

 Must-reads:

"Democrats plot strategy to win back House" — Ed O'Keefe, The Washington Post

"Federal judge strikes down Va. ban on gay marriage" — Robert Barnes, The Washington Post

"States Struggle to Add Latinos to Health Rolls" — Jennifer Medina and Abby Goodnough, The New York Times

"Court overturns restrictions on concealed guns in much of California" — Maura Dolan and Tony Perry, The Los Angeles Times

Jaime Fuller reports on national politics for "The Fix" and Post Politics. She worked previously as an associate editor at the American Prospect, a political magazine based in Washington, D.C.
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Jaime Fuller · February 13