WASHINGTON D.C. -- With one week to go before the midterm election, tea partiers are focused less on ideological purity than power. Many are throwing their resources behind the Republican candidates they opposed in primaries in an effort to help the GOP seize control of the Senate and hold on to governors' mansions.
In North Carolina, the Tea Party Patriots are mobilizing volunteers to help elect Thom Tillis to the Senate, after they heavily backed one of his opponents in the primary.
“Tillis wasn’t our second or maybe even third choice in North Carolina,” said Kevin Broughton, communications director for the super PAC Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund. “There is a chance Thom Tillis won’t care about tea party folks when he gets into office, but there is a certainty that Kay Hagan won’t give a hoot."
“We can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good with so much at stake.”
In Kansas, Tea Party Express, which has spent thousands of dollars helping conservative candidates, recently announced its support for Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, who is locked in a tight battle with independent Greg Orman. The Tea Party Express had backed Milton Wolf in the primary, but Roberts was able to hold onto his seat with less than 50 percent of the vote.
In Georgia, the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund, whom did not pick a favorite in the primary, threw its support behind Georgia Senate candidate David Perdue. Perdue and Democrat Michelle Nunn are in a dead heat -- and the Georgia seat could prove decisive in regard to which party controls the Senate.
“We’re asking all conservatives in Georgia not just to vote for David Perdue, but to knock on doors for him,” Tea Party Patriots Chair Jenny Beth Martin said in a statement. “Make phone calls. Drive a friend to the polls. These midterm elections are so critical to the future of the Republic, and it’s time for Georgians to answer the call.”
“The establishment has the big money but we’ve got the ground troops, and it’s always going to be that way,” Diana Banister, a Republican communication strategist, said. “The activists and the tea party are still there and they are still working their tails off in their local races, in the Senate races and the governor races.”
Tea partiers may be energized in part because they believe they've succeeded in pulling the GOP to the right. Taylor Budowich, executive director of the Tea Party Express, said this cycle is different from the last two for conservative activists because the candidates backed by the Republican establishment are more in line with his group's views.
“The differences in the primary in 2014 were much smaller so it makes it easier to come together in the general,” Budowich said. “Our No. 1 focus is taking back the Senate, so we’re going to be watching every single Senate race.”
Tea party groups are also closely watching the campaigns of Republican governors they helped sweep into office in 2010. Republicans hold more governors’ mansions than Democrats, 29 to 21. But the GOP is having to work hard to hold onto the advantage. About a dozen gubernatorial campaigns are too close to call, and many of the Republicans first elected in the 2010 tea party wave are struggling.
“Whenever you have big successes in an election, you have to play defense,” Budowich said. “That’s what 2014 is about, playing defense in some of these pick-up races.”
Kansas Republican Gov. Sam Brownback is locked in a tie with Democratic challenger Paul Davis, despite the state being reliably conservative for several presidential cycles. Brownback rode tea party support into the statehouse and was able to implement nearly all of his policy objectives thanks to a Republican-controlled legislature.
The tea party is also scrambling to hang onto the governor's mansion in Maine. After missteps like saying, "About 47 percent of able-bodied people in the state of Maine don't work," Republican Gov. Paul LePage has watched his popularity tumble. Recent polls have been contradictory. A poll by the Portland Press Herald this week found LePage up by 10 points, but another the week before by the Bangor Daily News found Democrat Mike Michaund leading by 10 points. LePage could ultimately win re-election with only 40 percent of the vote.
Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker -- who is on the ballot for the third time in four years thanks to an unsuccessful recall effort -- is another tea party-backed candidate who is having to work extra hard to stay in power. Wisconsin is bluer than the home states of many of his fellow imperiled governors.
While tea partiers in other states have joined fellow Republicans in the battle to win the Senate, most tea party groups are still backing Louisiana Senate candidate Rob Maness, a Republican who is likely to take votes away from fellow GOPer Rep. Bill Cassidy. The three-way fight means that Cassidy probably won't win 50 percent of the vote, and the race against incumbent Democrat Sen. Mary Landrieu will head into a December runoff.
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the Tea Party Patriots opposed David Perdue in the Georgia Senate primary. The organization didn't endorse in the primary.