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What's next for the tea party?

The tea party can't seem to pull off primary challenges like they used to. Where do they go from here?
Tea Party activist William Temple, protests in front of he U.S. Supreme Court, on June 28, 2012 in Washington, DC.
Tea Party activist William Temple, protests in front of he U.S. Supreme Court, on June 28, 2012 in Washington, DC.

Mitch McConnell offered up a bold prediction in March when asked about the various right wing challengers he and his Republican colleagues faced in the primaries.

"I think we are going to crush them everywhere,” he told the New York Times. “I don’t think they are going to have a single nominee anywhere in the country.”

So far, so good. McConnell laid utter waste to tea party opponent Matt Bevin on Tuesday, whose insurgent campaign drew support from conservative advocacy groups around the country like FreedomWorks and the Senate Conservatives Fund. In Idaho, Rep. Mike Simpson repelled conservative candidate Bryan Smith, who was backed by Club For Growth.

The more intemperate elements of the right didn’t fare much better in open races either. In Georgia, the tea party vote was split between several candidates. But the far right is losing one of its most unabashed supporters in Washington in Rep. Paul Broun, who will be forced out of the House come 2015 after failing to make the Senate primary runoff (though his potential replacement sounds pretty Broun-esque).

In Oregon, pro-choice and pro-immigration Monica Wehby – heavily favored by establishment Republicans – easily defeated socially conservative opponent Jason Conger.

It isn’t just the mounting losses against incumbents or establishment-friendly candidates that are of concern to the GOP’s right flank. It’s that the losses seem to follow a familiar pattern. In each case, the Republican establishment recognized threats early and spent big to stop them before they gained traction. Meanwhile, tea party groups struggled to match establishment spending amid questions about their overall efficiency.

In the past, tea party success "was tied to spending a couple hundred thousand bucks in low-turn out, mid-term elections and appealing to the most conservative and most motivated GOP voter,” former Congressman Steven LaTourette, whose group Main Street Partnership champions centrist candidates, told msnbc. “That is not going to happen anymore and we are on to them.”

In McConnell’s case, super PACs with close ties to groups like Karl Rove’s American Crossroads spent millions hammering Bevin before he could ever gain momentum, which he never did. In Idaho, the Chamber of Commerce endorsed Simpson in February and quickly took to the air to bash “trial lawyer Bryan Smith.” This stands in contrast to races in 2010 like the Delaware senate contest, where little known candidate Christine O’Donnell’s well-timed boost from a group like Tea Party Express overwhelmed the establishment before they realized they were really in danger.

Adam Brandon, the executive vice president of FreedomWorks, told msnbc that the GOP power brokers' increasing willingness to commit major resources to primaries had changed the dynamic this year.  

“We're just being blasted with ads,” Brandon said. “It’s the Achilles heel of our movement. If we were only outspent 4-to-1 we'd be winning all these races, but we're being outspent 10-to-1.”

The next round of primary challenges in Kansas and Mississippi are already following a similar script.

The Chamber of Commerce is also backing incumbent Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran and the group's strategist, Scott Reed, told Politico in March their plan was to “strip the bark off" Cochran's tea party primary challenger, Chris McDaniel. The National Republican Senatorial Committee has been pounding McDaniel with everything they have. Which is a lot in McDaniel’s case: He seems to have a habit of popping up with white supremacist and neo-Confederate groups and this week has flailed in his response to the arrest of a pro-McDaniel blogger who was caught allegedly sneaking into a nursing home to film Cochran’s sick wife.

The NRSC and the Chamber are also supporting Kansas GOP Sen. Pat Roberts, who is looking strong in his race against challenger Milton Wolf. Wolf's campaign suffered an early setback when it was revealed he had posted x-ray images of brutal injuries with joking comments online.

Brandon and leaders of other conservative groups have argued that even if they don’t win their prime time races, the constant simmering threat of a challenge is keeping Republican incumbents firmly to the right (see McConnell's awkward alliance with Rand Paul) while their less high-profile work in statehouse contests and open races helps build a bench of new leaders. 

“These guys are running on our issues,” Brandon said. “We're setting the agenda.”

Judging by the crop of candidates they’ve tried to take out this year, it’s possible tea party-era groups have become a victim of their success as much as a victim of establishment counter-efforts. In 2010, their targets were often moderate career politicians like Republican Mike Castle in Delaware, whose support for a cap and trade bill to combat climate change is almost unthinkable for a Republican today, or former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who isn’t even a Republican anymore. Today they are targeting people like McConnell, who have waged total war against the Obama White House, or North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis who led a conservative renaissance in his state.

It’s also debatable how much these kinds of organized challenges are keeping the party reliably conservative, given the prevailing anti-Obama mood that already exists in the Republican base. But if organizations like FreedomWorks really are truly responsible for the shift, they should be very worried that the trick that launched them to national prominence no longer works like it used to.