Tea Party SuperPAC Targets Established GOP Candidates

Mainstream Republicans have been fighting back against Tea Party groups in congressional primaries this year. Steve Inskeep talks to Drew Ryun of the Madison Project, a national Tea Party superPAC.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

The Tea Party candidate won a Republican primary for Senate last night in Nebraska. That was a boost for a political movement that, on the whole, is under pressure in 2014. Tea Party rebels have been pushing against mainstream Republicans they call the establishment.

INSKEEP: Now, in past years, they've defeated mainstream Republicans in primaries, only to lose some key general elections. This year, the establishment is pushing back, and the Tea Party is trying to play smarter. An establishment senator won this year in Texas, and the Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell is favored to win a primary fight in Kentucky.

As the primary season unfolds, we got on the phone with Drew Ryan, Political director of a Tea Party-affiliated political action committee called the Madison Project.

Now, as you know, mainstream Republicans have criticized the Tea Party for supporting and nominating candidates who could not win in the general election. Has there been a race this year where you've looked at and said: Well, there's a Tea Party candidate who is just not an electable person?

DREW RYAN: Well, you know, I think Texas was definitely one of those, where I think a lot of people expected the conservative movement to rally around John Cornyn's opponent. Frankly, none of us viewed his opponent as a legitimate threat, the ability to raise money or taking the campaign seriously. But when you look at some of these other candidates, I think we have really viable candidates. Now, how that plays out here over the next few weeks, some of that's dictated by the amount of money they can raise.

And one of the things the conservative movement has to understand is when we go up against these incumbents, not only have they built war chests over the years that they've been in D.C., they also have the backing of the Chamber of Commerce, their friends on K Street, other members of the GOP establishment. So, then it gets down to the tactics employed, always knowing that we're going to be outspent, but getting on the ground, finding the right kind of voters, communicating to them in these primary scenarios. That, I think, will give the conservative movement a chance, as we see these primaries play out over the next three to four weeks.

INSKEEP: Well, give me an idea. If you're challenging an incumbent congressman, say, what is the minimum amount of money these days that a candidate would need to raise to be serious in a primary?

RYAN: I've got to think that they're going to have to raise over a hundred thousand in the first couple of weeks that they're in the race, to be honest with you. I know some people cringe to hear that money is the milk of politics, but it is. You don't have to have dollar-for-dollar the amount that the opponent has. But anybody that raises a hundred to $200,000 in the first few weeks that they are in a race, I think, right then and there, that stamps them as somebody who is viable, somebody who is legitimate, somebody who is serious about running for office.

INSKEEP: Of course, there've been a couple of more Supreme Court rulings that have again changed the rules under which people can contribute. It is easier for someone to give a larger total amount to multiple candidates. It's easier to give money to the political parties now. Who gains from those changes, if anyone?

RYAN: Frankly, it remains to be seen. When you look at, you know, say, the Citizens United case from a few years ago, you look at the recent decision that raises the cap of how much money individual donors can give to candidates, but lifting the amount they can give whole scale to the political arena, I would have to say that latter decision probably helps the grass roots. I would say the former decision, Citizens United, probably plays a little bit more to the strengths of the establishment.

INSKEEP: Oh, now, that's interesting. Would it help what you describe as the grass roots movement? Because you may have a supporter who feels very passionate, who had maxed out under the old limits, and now you can go back to that supporter for some more money?

RYAN: Absolutely. The ability to go to some of these supporters and say: Hey, knowing that you give generously, now that the caps have been removed, there are other candidates that you can be giving to now. And I know for a fact that there are some donors that now had been freed up to do that.

INSKEEP: Do you feel like the Republican Party is going to win the Senate in 2014?

RYAN: I do, actually. What the makeup of that Republican Party looks like, again, it's going to be decided over the next three to four weeks. Do I think that Mitch McConnell will probably be the majority leader? I do. But the internal dynamics of the GOP caucus may be such that Mitch McConnell won't have the free rein that I think he hopes for in a Republican majority.

INSKEEP: Has the Tea Party lost momentum as it's gotten a little older?

RYAN: No, in fact, you're seeing a lot of these would-be GOP establishment-type candidates running on what are arguably Tea Party platform issues. So I think the Tea Party Movement is winning. The caveat to that is, you know, it's not just about the message. It's just not getting in a sense lip service and having them run on our issues. It's actually having some wins inside these primary scenarios. So you're not going to win every race. That's politics. But I think that we are going to have some really good victories here in the next few weeks.

INSKEEP: Drew Ryan of the Madison Project, thanks very much.

RYAN: Steve, thanks for having me on.

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