On Oct. 16, as the House and Senate sheepishly reopened the government and raised the debt limit, political reporters opened their email to find an unsolicited invitation. Someone named Chris McDaniel, a 41-year-old Mississippi state senator, would soon “end speculation” over his plans to run for the U.S. Senate. On Oct. 17, sure enough, McDaniel stood before the Ellisville, Miss. courthouse and confirmed that he would challenge Sen. Thad Cochran, who’s sat behind a Senate desk since 1979.
“I am reminded of that first revolution,” said McDaniel, flanked by supporters and a Patton-sized American flag. “I stand here with you, with the silent majority of Americans who believe we can retake this country, who still believe in liberty.”
Cochran, the first Republican to win a direct election to one of Mississippi’s Senate seats, did not vote for the Affordable Care Act. But he didn’t vote with Sens. Ted Cruz and Mike Lee against the House’s continuing resolution—a procedural vote that would have prevented debate on the funding and thus blocked Democrats from adding back funding for the law. He voted with most Senate Republicans on the shutdown-ending bill. So conservatives want to replace him. McDaniel’s announcement was echoed by an immediate $1 million ad buy from the Washington, D.C.–based Club for Growth, introducing Mississippians to McDaniel as an antidote to (unnamed) “career politicians bankrupting our country.”
“I would have stood my ground and fought on the issue of defunding,” McDaniel said in an interview. “We’ve increased the debt ceiling 77 times since 1962, so when it does happen, let’s attempt to get concessions out of the compromise. This time, the Republicans didn’t pick up any significant or substantive concessions. I’ve been practicing law for years, and every time I had a lawsuit settled, both parties walked away with something. That didn’t happen here—there were no concessions on health care or the debt. I would have stood and fought.”
Any Republican donor who thought that the shutdown would “break the fever” of the Tea Party, or that it would prove the pesky base wrong about its strategy, clearly didn’t know enough conservatives. “People started paying attention to Obamacare again” because of the shutdown, according to McDaniel. The immediate political legacy of the #StandWithCruz moment is a surge of primary challenges, mostly in states or districts that Democrats won’t even try to win. The goal: replace the graybeard Republicans who “caved” with Cruz/Lee doppelgangers who won’t.
Conservatives have boasted about this goal with all the secrecy and humility of Kanye West explaining his lyrics. In 2011, while he was just a candidate for Senate, Ted Cruz told the New York Times that it would “fundamentally shift the character of the Senate” if “the five or six strong conservatives elected to the Senate in 2012 became 10 or 12.” This week, after he returned to Texas, Cruz blamed the Republicans who had opposed the defund fight for whatever damage had happened to “the Republican brand.”
Conservative activists want to fix this by removing or replacing anyone who didn’t fight. Nebraska Sen. Mike Johanns is retiring, spending his final months in office chastening the conservatives who wanted to defund Obamacare through the CR. “It's a tactic that promised things that as a minority we do not have any ability to deliver,” Johanns told the Lincoln Journal-Star. “I don't see an exit strategy.” But the surprise hope to replace Johanns is Ben Sasse, a 42-year-old former Health and Human Services assistant secretary who calls himself “the anti-Obamacare candidate” and says he’s “not looking to meet in the middle.” Sasse is already getting Cruz-like treatment in conservative media. The state’s former treasurer, who led early polls, raised $336,000 in the first quarter. Sasse raised $815,000, breaking a record set six years ago by Sen. Johanns. Shortly thereafter he was endorsed by the Senate Conservatives Fund, which previously backed Cruz and Lee.
The typical, Karl Rove knock on Tea Party candidates is that they blow elections for the Republican Party in hard-to-win states. Sasse and McDaniel are seeking nominations in states where Democrats can no longer compete; the last serious Democratic recruits in Nebraska and Mississippi, Bob Kerrey and Ronnie Musgrove, lost by double digits. It’s been 19 years since Democrats seriously contested a Senate race in Kansas, and that minimizes the risk posed by Dr. Milton Wolf, a distant Obama cousin and Tea Party speaker who’s now challenging Sen. Pat Roberts over his vote to put Kathleen Sebelius (the state’s former governor) in charge of the Department of Health and Human Services.
And by 2014 it’ll have been a decade since Democrats made a run at a Senate seat in South Carolina. No Democrat, says 43-year-old state Sen. Lee Bright, will win statewide office there as long as Barack Obama is president. That argument is helping his primary challenge to Sen. Lindsey Graham, who voted against the Cruz/Lee stratagem and trashed it whenever a microphone or camera came into view.
“I would have voted with Cruz and Lee,” said Bright. “There’s nothing they’ve done up to this point that I disagree with. Look, people are going to ask: Where were you? Did you do everything you could to stop this? The Republican minority in the Senate blinked, as Obama knew they would.”
How could Bright or McDaniel have changed that? Neither of them suggested a play that Cruz hadn’t already tried. Both candidates said they were disinclined to raise the debt limit, and would only do so if conditions were met. Both would have voted against any of the deals that ended the last few showdowns.
“When the Democrats proposed Obamacare, a lot of people gave them no chance of succeeding,” said McDaniel. “But they worked, and they fought. The point is, you fight every day, you get in the trenches, you do the right thing for your republic even if it hurts. In life, sometimes victories don’t come overnight.”
Bright was just as optimistic, and hopeful that a few more conservative senators could put the fear into “squishy moderates” the next time Congress was asked to fund the government or raise the debt limit.
“We lost, but at least we’ve got a roll call vote in the Senate,” said Bright. “We know which senators fought for liberty, and which ones caved to Obama. They put up the white flags before the battle started. We’ve got a list.”