Cruz’s decision not to endorse any incumbents affirms his status as an “outsider,” which is linked to his Tea Party base and his policy goals. In separating himself from the political establishment, Cruz matches his aggressive effort to prod GOP lawmakers to act more forcefully to dismantle the federal government. The key example at the moment is the Texan’s push to force a budget showdown over the Affordable Care Act.
John Kennedy jumped the line too, so going around the old bulls is not a new idea, but what Cruz and Paul hint at is a new permanent pathway. In Wyoming Liz Cheney is testing whether there is a broader market for this approach, which is not simply conservative but aggressively anti-establishment. She is trying to unseat faithful conservative Mike Enzi not because he isn’t conservative in his votes but because he hasn’t been aggressively conservative in shaking up the Senate.
But you want to get the balance right between sticking with your anti-establishment base and still having access to the establishment’s money and power. In the future, if Cruz and Paul want to run for president, they will need money from the establishment forces that tend to populate the GOP donor class. Plus, they’ll need to appeal to those voters who have consistently nominated moderates to carry the party’s standard.
This attention to the inevitable force of the establishment is what many GOP strategists see behind Rand Paul's different endorsement decisions. By backing Mitch McConnell, Paul is keeping at least a toe in the establishment world. His core supporters may be suspicious of McConnell and the forces he represents, but Paul knows he needs to have a tie to that larger GOP audience for his re-election campaign in 2016. Jesse Benton, Paul's strategist who is working on McConnell’s re-election, put it bluntly in a recent phone call he didn't know was being recorded. "I'm sorta holding my nose for two years because what we're doing here is going to be a big benefit to Rand in '16. So that's my long vision," he told a Tea Party ally.
The tensions between movement conservatives distrustful of entrenched Washington power and the organized Republican Party have existed for the last 50 years or more, but what campaign strategists say is new is that the apparatus for channeling that grass-roots anger has become more professional and permanent. This is unique to the Republican Party, which has a more organized and larger conservative base able to affect party politics than the liberal base in the Democratic Party. In the 1990s conservatives backed various term-limit movements, but they fizzled. Nothing has had the sustaining power of the loose coalition of movement conservative groups that can now channel voter anger. It is made up of conservative organizations like the Club for Growth, the Senate Conservatives Fund, FreedomWorks, Heritage Action, and others, which single out incumbents they think fall short of being true conservatives and sometimes spend money to defeat them. RedState and the social networks these organizations connect to offer the conservative movement a megaphone against incumbency.
The question of how to strike the balance between the two camps in the Republican Party is a mix of personal ambition, ad hoc purity tests, and affection for the benefits of actual power, which can undermine the purists in the grass roots. (Republicans still have a pretty good chance at taking back control of the Senate). Though the anti-establishment is becoming more disciplined, structured, and professional, that doesn’t mean the rules of endorsement will be any more predictable.