Tea Party Narrowly Misses—Again

by John Fund

Tea-party Republicans have only themselves to blame for not knocking off an incumbent GOP senator in a primary this election cycle. A divided field of six challengers allowed South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham to win without a runoff in South Carolina. In Mississippi, tea-party forces were out hustled by the cynical tactics of the Haley Barbour machine. In Kansas, they pulled back from fully supporting physician Milton Wolf’s challenge to incumbent Pat Roberts after Wolf was found to have posted patients’ X-rays on Facebook along with offensive comments about them. But Wolf kept ramming home his message that Roberts had gotten Potomac Fever after 47 years in Washington, and made a real race of it. He lost last night by only 48 percent to 41 percent. Roberts just barely avoided political death. As the Kansas City Star noted, “Deeply conservative D.J. Smith drew 6 percent, and the somewhat libertarian Alvin Zahnter pulled 5 percent. Had their anti-establishment support gone Wolf’s way, he might have pulled off the upset.”

If tea-party national groups had looked at Roberts’s later poll numbers they would have seen them hovering around 50 percent support even as he had a huge lead over Wolf. An incumbent with 50 percent support is almost always a sure-fire sign of one that’s in trouble. 

Limited-government forces fared better in Kansas’s House primaries last night. Incumbent Republican Mike Pompeo kept his Wichita seat: He defeated his predecessor Todd Tiahrt 63 percent to 37 percent by reminding voters that Tiahrt had been a leading pusher of earmarks during his 16 years in Congress.

Incumbent Tim Huelskamp, a Republican who was thrown off of the House Agriculture Committee after supporting a revolt against Speaker John Boehner, survived a late barrage of ads against him from the renewable-fuels lobby. A super PAC called Now or Never spent $260,000 attacking him for opposing the Renewable Fuels Standard, a piece of corporate welfare that mandates the use of ethanol but pumps $1.5 billion into the Kansas economy. A who’s who of agri-business groups including the Kansas Corn Growers Association, the Kansas Farm Bureau, and the Kansas Association of Ethanol Processors issued a joint statement this month against Huelskamp. His underfunded primary opponent, Alan LaPolice, a onetime actor who has lived in the district full-time for only a year, became the repository of anti-Huelskamp sentiment and won 45 percent of the vote. 

Agricultural interests fared better in neighboring Missouri, where a constitutional amendment establishing a “right to farm” won statewide by 2,500 votes. The measure would establish farming as a privileged occupation not subject to state regulation. The measure will likely slow down efforts to regulate agriculture by the environmental lobby, though I’m not sure such an effort belongs in a state constitution.