The GOP’s New Paths to Power

Why the Republican Party’s old bulls in the Senate are desperate to get the support of the party’s young bucks.

Sen. Ted Cruz
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, needs his older colleagues less than they need him.

Photo by Brandon Wade/Getty Images

Republican politics has gotten so complicated, even the members known for drawing bright lines are getting fuzzy. Sen. Ted Cruz is vice chairman of the committee charged with re-electing Republicans, but he refuses to endorse John Cornyn, the senior Republican senator from his own state. Sen. Rand Paul said he would like Sen. Lamar Alexander to win re-election, but he won’t endorse the Tennessee Republican. He is, however, endorsing Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who supported Paul’s rival in the 2010 GOP primary, though Paul also says he’s going to stay out of the race between McConnell and his Tea Party challenger. Nevertheless, Paul will do everything he can to help incumbent Sen. Mike Enzi, who is being challenged in the Wyoming Senate Republican primary by Liz Cheney, whose interventionist foreign policy Paul dislikes. 

It is generally accepted that endorsements are meaningless. Voters make up their minds based on the candidate, not the people he or she locks arms with. But the peculiarities of this election season’s endorsement dance tell us something about the battle between the grass-roots and establishment forces inside the Republican Party. The movement devoted to unseating incumbents has become a permanent fixture of our politics and highlights the new routes to power for ambitious young Republicans. 

It used to be that a senator like Cornyn, the second-most-powerful Republican in the Senate, could rely on seniority and incumbency. The re-election rates in the United States Senate hover around 90 percent. Even fewer senators lose their party primaries. But with the rise of the Tea Party in 2010, Washington titles started to provide less protection. Cornyn faces a primary opponent, and while it is highly unlikely he will lose, the same is not true for Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, the most powerful Republican in the Senate. He faces a Tea Party challenger whom he may be able to beat, but who will at the very least cause distraction, bleed his bank account, and potentially put McConnell in a weaker spot for the general election. The situation is perilous enough for the minority leader that Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report has moved McConnell’s race into the tossup column.

As the old bulls get weaker, the young bucks get stronger. So Lamar Alexander, a former governor and Cabinet official who drew a primary challenger last week, is anxious to show his ties to a Senate newcomer like Rand Paul by running a television ad in which the two are shown working together. McConnell hired Paul’s campaign strategist Jesse Benton to run his campaign. While endorsements may not win votes directly, if you stand with Rand, it can offer a shield against criticism. If you have no military experience, it helps to be supported by a decorated general. If I’m good enough for this four-star hero, who are you to question me? If a senator can point to a seal of approval from a grass-roots hero, it might be enough to short-circuit a nuisance candidate. “Lamar would care less about Paul if he was running unopposed,” says a party strategist working on the 2014 Senate campaigns, “but Rand Paul is connected to 20 grass-roots activists and they have networks of thousands of people. Keeping all of that at bay and not working against you is valuable.”

Once upon a time, young, ambitious politicians curried favor with the leadership. A man in a hurry like Sen. Cruz would jump to endorse Cornyn in the hopes that the senior senator would help him within the institution and provide access to his base of donors when Cruz came up for re-election. Since Cornyn is ranked as one of the most conservative senators, that young politician wouldn’t be offending his ideological base by backing a squish. But for Cruz there is more to be gained by standing outside the institution than by playing within its rules.

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.