Maybe the more important story of the conservative, mostly unsuccessful, primary challenges to incumbents isn’t the few victories nor the political shifts rightward from scared legislators. Maybe the big story is the money, millions dumped into primary campaigns by challengers and defenders.
Politico features two reports on campaign spending. So-called Tea Party groups, principally the Club for Growth, the Senate Conservatives Fund, FreedomWorks, and Tea Party Patriots have spent at least $12.5 million to fund conservative challengers. And there’s more: other organizations and subsequent reports will add substantially to that total.
Establishment-oriented groups, have spent nearly twice that much in independent expenditures, with the US Chamber of Commerce as the largest contributor. And incumbents have been aggressive in raising money to defend their offices.
What all this means still isn’t clear. Minimally, conservative donors have dipped deeper into their substantial pockets to fund candidates, and that money has gone to employ consultants, pollsters, and political operatives–essentially, a full employment act for Republican campaign professionals. I’m sure they want to win, but fighting the good fight–on the clock–isn’t a bad fallback. The drive to raise money makes for more polemical rhetoric, for the moment directed against fellow Republicans, which certainly doesn’t make for informative–or pleasant–politics.
The fact that the insurgents are mounting these challenges makes it all the more urgent–and expensive–for the incumbents to fight for their base. And individual candidates are raising more money on their own than ever before.
The focus on funding primary fights means that the most important Tea Party activists are those who can write large checks. To the extent that a grassroots remains of the movement, it’s become increasingly marginal. This is an institutionalization story, in which the issues become a vehicle for animating the business of politics.
What will all of it mean?
Here’s a few things I don’t know:
Are conservative funders going to get tired of spending money on largely internecine battles?
Will there be less money for the fall campaigns against Democrats?
Can the supply side of Republican campaign professionals (insurgent and establishment) continue to nurture its own demand? (If supply side economics works anywhere, it should be here!)