Two things stand between Mitch McConnell and the Senate majority leader’s office: Democrats, and the conservatives who might help elect Democrats. Should Mr. McConnell come up short in November, no one should forget the latter.
Republicans have more than a presidential primary roiling their party. In states across the nation, grass-roots organizations like the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks are staging a repeat of 2010, ginning up divisive GOP primaries. This is the process that gifted Sharron Angle to Republicans, helping deny Mr. McConnell Senate control in 2010. The difference this time? The stakes are higher.
Fifty-one seats gives the GOP control over votes and committees. Fifty-one is the difference between Republicans being able to cut spending and oversee Supreme Court nominations, or Harry Reid continuing to Taser the House agenda. If Republicans win the White House, 50 seats plus a GOP vice president lets them roll back ObamaCare through a “reconciliation” process that skirts the filibuster. If President Obama wins, 51 is the backstop to a lame-duck president’s ambitions.
Republicans hold 47 seats. Maine is likely lost, while GOP incumbents in Massachusetts and Nevada face tough re-elections. Republicans could need as many as seven pickups, maybe more. Democratic retirements may help the GOP in four or five open seats. But to win control, they’ll have to knock off several sitting senators—an extraordinary feat.
Bottom line: Any group messing in a state that ought to be a Republican lock is messing with conservative priorities. Yet, fueled by tea party frustrations, the Club and FreedomWorks are ripping up front-runners in states the GOP cannot afford to lose and fueling underfunded candidates who sport a track record of political losses.
These are states like Nebraska, where Democrat Ben Nelson chose to retire rather than face state Attorney General Jon Bruning. Nebraska ought to be a GOP breeze, despite the entry of former Democratic Gov. Bob Kerrey. Mr. Bruning has never lost an election, has been central in the state fight against ObamaCare, and is supported by the Tea Party Express.
Yet both FreedomWorks and the Club are backing former Attorney General Don Stenberg as the true “fiscal conservative.” Mr. Stenberg may well be that, though he hasn’t convinced Nebraskans of it in his prior three losing bids for U.S. Senate. He’s once again struggling to raise money.
In Wisconsin, former four-term Gov. Tommy Thompson wants to replace retiring Democrat Herb Kohl. Wisconsin is no sure GOP bet, though a recent poll had the well-known Mr. Thompson beating Democrat Tammy Baldwin. The Club and Sen. Jim DeMint back Mark Neumann, who trailed Ms. Baldwin by 18 points in the same poll and has lost prior Senate and gubernatorial bids. Some conservatives also remember Mr. Neumann as the 1990s congressman who was hostile to tax cuts and free trade—making his Club-DeMint endorsement all the more perplexing.
More unnerving to pragmatists is the groups’ work to unseat Indiana Republican Dick Lugar. Mr. Lugar—who is pro-life and opposed the stimulus, ObamaCare, Dodd-Frank and cap and trade—last won re-election with 87% of the vote. If he wins his primary, he rolls over Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly. If the primary nod instead goes to the Club-FreedomWorks pick, State Treasurer Richard Mourdock, all sure bets are off. And it will cost a bundle.
Speaking of money, there’s Utah, where FreedomWorks has spent $616,000 to defeat Orrin Hatch (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 89%) in a primary. It has spent $1,716 opposing Senate Democrats. It hasn’t even endorsed a Hatch competitor. Yes, Utah will remain in Republican hands. Then again, imagine how far $616,000 would go in unseating, say, Montana Democrat Jon Tester. Mr. Hatch will vote to repeal ObamaCare; Mr. Tester will not.
It’s the dollar point that irks GOP moneymen, who note that these groups blow their cash in primaries, leaving it to Super PACS and the party to buck up folks like Mrs. Angle in the general. That money could be going to widen the field, especially in a year when the activists aren’t giving themselves enough credit. Their very existence has already changed GOP behavior. It is why Mr. Hatch last year voted to the right of Mr. DeMint.
FreedomWorks’ Adam Brandon and Russ Walker, and Club President Chris Chocola, made the usual good points to me: While Mrs. Angle didn’t pan out, Marco Rubio, Pat Toomey, Rand Paul and Mike Lee did. This year’s primary work is firing up voters in states that will matter in November. While they want to change the Senate culture, they are also picking their spots carefully. In states like Indiana and Nebraska, says Mr. Chocola, whatever Republican “wins the primary is going to be senator. Some people think we don’t calculate the risks. We do.”
Then again, Mrs. Angle was a calculated risk. The question for every conservative in this election is whether the possibility of getting a slightly more ideologically pure senator is worth blowing the chance to kill ObamaCare, cut spending, reform entitlements, revive the economy, stop the EPA, block tax hikes, and thwart the union agenda. That’s a risk even a Las Vegas bookie might run from.