The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The GOP civil war just got worse

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Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Tex.) surprised the political world Monday when he filed at the last minute to challenge Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), complicating the senator's reelection bid just when it looked to be virtually problem-free.

In doing so, Stockman not only threw a wrench in Cornyn's plans. He also intensified the broader GOP civil war that is vexing the lives of Republican senators like never before. Seven of the 12 up for reelection next year now face capable or potentially tough primary challengers, including the two top-ranking Republicans and a third who used to serve in leadership.

"This is what happens when you go to the well one too many times," said Keith Appell, a conservative GOP strategist. "Year after year," he added, Republican incumbents "ask for conservative money, conservative volunteers and conservative votes. Time after time they're rewarded with all of these, only to punt and cave on issue after issue when they get back to Washington."

Stockman is far from an A-list challenger. He has a knack for controversial statements and a dearth of campaign funds. But among a Texas GOP electorate in which Cornyn is no hero, he shouldn't be counted out.

Nor should underdog tea party-aligned challengers to Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), or Pat Roberts (R-Kan.). Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) and Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) have drawn higher-caliber opponents.

Finally, the GOP is defending open seats in Nebraska and Georgia where intense primaries are raging. A flawed GOP nominee in Georgia could put the seat in play for Democrats.

Not all Republicans are enthusiastic about seeing senators face challengers at such a high rate. Many see it as a destructive development coming on the heels of two straight election cycles in which messy primaries that yielded problematic nominees cost the GOP seats in Delaware, Indiana, Colorado, Nevada and Missouri.

"The Senate has become the House -- willy-nilly primary challenges designed to do nothing but satisfy the egos of the challengers," said Republican pollster Glen Bolger. "Money spent on primaries is money that can’t be spent to defeat Democrats. [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid is rubbing his bony hands with glee."

The good news for Republicans is that most seats they are defending lie in ruby-red states unlikely to flip even if untested challengers like Stockman manage to get nominated. But in a different cycle in which more GOP seats were in play, the rate at which incumbents are drawing primary challengers could be disastrous.

If two of the seven GOP senators facing primaries fail to advance to the general election, it will equal a quarter of the number of senators who have been felled in primaries during the last three decades. Senators simply don't lose intra-party fights very often. Eager to change that reality, conservative groups and activists are expanding the playing field for potential upsets.

Opposite them, McConnell and his allies aren't sitting on their hands. Not only are they taking on the candidates who are running against incumbents; they are also seeking to undercut the groups that back them like the Senate Conservatives Fund. The National Republican Senatorial Committee sought to punish a consulting firm that works with the Senate Conservatives Fund -- a group that supports insurgent tea party challengers -- by vowing not to do business with them and encouraging other campaigns to follow suit.

"All of our Republican incumbents are well prepared and equipped to run successful campaigns," said NRSC spokesman Brad Dayspring. "We will bring them all back."

It doesn't help the NRSC's cause, however, that one its vice chairmen, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), has vowed not to weigh in on races in which Republican senators face challengers. If anything, Cruz's silence has signaled to activists that taking on incumbents is acceptable.

What's more, the tea party senator's crusade to defund Obamacare -- which was panned by moderate Republicans but embraced by the far right -- laid bare divisions in the party that spilled over onto the 2014 landscape, where the Senate Conservatives Fund slammed GOP senators who didn't join Cruz's fight.

"Senate Republicans are facing primary challenges because voters are tired of being betrayed," said Matt Hoskins, the group's executive director.

The Senate Conservatives Fund backs opponents to McConnell and Cochran. In the case of Cornyn, the Senate's second-ranking Republican, Hoskins said his group is "glad" Stockman is running but hasn't decided whether it will back him.

Senate Republicans are fighting to take back the majority in the upper chamber this cycle across a favorable map presenting them with many opportunities to win back seats on friendly terrain. But they are also fighting to protect their own from their own party.

Their task speaks volumes about the current state of the GOP, which remains torn between competing wings.


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