WASHINGTON — As soon as a little-known conservative toppled House Majority Leader Eric Cantor on Tuesday night, tea party enthusiasts turned their sights to the next big election-year targets: Mississippi and Kansas.
The two states are next up on the GOP’s primary calendar as Washington insiders, particularly 76-year-old Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, are fighting hard-right upstarts in an environment in which outsiders have suddenly gained currency.
New ads went on the air in Mississippi two days after Cantor’s defeat, hammering Cochran as a veteran lawmaker who deserves respect — but not another term in office. In Kansas, Milton Wolf, who is challenging three-term Sen. Pat Roberts, said on Twitter that Cantor isn’t the only incumbent “who is going to lose his primary this year.”
“Virginia is a wake-up call,” said an e-mail fundraiser sent Wednesday morning by the Senate Conservatives Fund, which is working to elect hard-right candidates. “The tea party is very much alive.”
For most of this election cycle, the tea party has struggled to capture the small-government enthusiasm that gave it power in 2010 and 2012. Now, the Virginia results have given the movement’s activists new optimism.
Cantor was routed by a college professor, Dave Brat, who relied on $120,000 and the enthusiasm of a conservative populist movement to propel turnout in a race that caught official Washington by surprise. The contest had been considered such a long shot that national tea party organizations had declined to get involved.
Republican Tom Davis, a former congressman from Virginia, said the victory was like a “caffeine jolt” for tea party groups.
“It’ll embolden them for the rest of the primary season,” Davis said on Bloomberg TV’s “Political Capital With Al Hunt.” “There are a couple other races coming up where I think there’s going to be some challenges that we need to watch.”
Major figures in the party establishment have been watching, and seeking to influence, those challenges all year. With Senate control within reach — Republicans need to pick up six seats in November to gain a majority — GOP leaders have been determined to avoid a repeat of past elections in which hard-right nominees failed in general elections in states including Nevada, Missouri, Indiana and Delaware.
Party-aligned organizations such as Karl Rove’s American Crossroads helped establishment candidates win primaries in Kentucky and North and South Carolina against tea-party-backed rivals.
But tea party groups hope they can at least somewhat even the score in the primary season’s remaining contests.
The day after Cantor’s defeat, Wolf, a Kansas physician who has never held elected office, told a campaign crowd that Virginia was only the beginning.
“You know something is happening in America,” Wolf said, according to KSNT-TV in Topeka. “We were seeing it in Virginia, we were seeing it in Mississippi, and now we’re seeing it unfold right here in Kansas. I think voters are hungry for people who will provide bold and conservative solutions.”
Whether Wolf will be able to capitalize on that mood remains uncertain — his campaign has been a rocky one. But the tea party has a much clearer potential path to victory in Mississippi. Cochran, a six-term veteran, failed to clear the 50 percent threshold needed in a primary against hard-right state Sen. Chris McDaniel, and now the two are headed for a runoff June 24. On Wednesday, conservative talk show host Sean Hannity endorsed McDaniel.
The contest has become an all-out war within the GOP and among the dirtiest campaigns of the season. A McDaniel supporter was arrested shortly before the first round of voting on suspicion of entering the nursing home where Cochran’s wife, Rose, lives in order to photograph her.
McDaniel has criticized the white-haired Cochran as out of touch, and last week the incumbent appeared to be unaware of what had happened in the Virginia race when asked by a reporter. The Cochran campaign dismissed the episode as one in which the senator had grown annoyed at having been repeatedly asked the same question that day on the campaign trail.
The tea party group FreedomWorks, which backs McDaniel, said the Virginia and Mississippi races show “the American people have made it loud and clear that the status quo is not acceptable anymore.”
But many Republican establishment figures believe the rise of more populist conservatives in the party and the divisions that have resulted bode poorly for the future, especially as the GOP looks to the 2016 presidential election.
“We’ve got to figure out how to bring the various factions of the Republican Party together or we’re in serious trouble in Virginia and nationally,” said the state’s former lieutenant governor, Bill Bolling. “And I don’t think we’re anywhere close to figuring it out. Maybe an election like this will get people’s attention. Maybe it will just create deeper divisions.”
(Michael A. Memoli in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.). Visit Tribune Co. at www.latimes.com. Distributed by MCT Information Services