So Much for GOP Unity in 2014

Republicans looking longingly at their last best chance of recapturing the Senate for years to come have to first fend off primary challenges

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Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell

The Republican Party’s unity project is not turning out to be much of a “Kumbaya” around the campfire.

A year after GOP leaders vowed that infighting between the party establishment and Tea Party activists would not derail Republicans’ electoral hopes again, the air appears as toxic as ever.

Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, facing a primary challenge in Kentucky, said on Tuesday that one of the outside groups funding insurgent candidates is “giving conservatism a bad name” and “participating in ruining the [Republican] brand.” Earlier that day, the head of the group accused him of trying to “blacklist” political strategists who work with Tea Party candidates. Late on Monday, a firebrand Congressman who brought Ted Nugent to the State of the Union pulled the trigger on a surprise primary against the Senate’s No. 2 Republican, John Cornyn.

Now, with the 2014 midterm elections nearing and Republicans looking longingly at their best chance of recapturing the Senate, many of the party’s power brokers first have to fend off primary challenges in eight of the 12 states where they have incumbents seeking re-election. “There is no magic wand that’s going to do away with primaries,” says former New York Republican Representative Tom Reynolds, a leading party fundraiser. “We’re just going to have to go through this.”

Maybe not a magic wand. But GOP elites had certainly hoped for better when they triumphantly announced in the New York Times a new super PAC, the Conservative Victory Project, that would direct money toward Establishment-friendly candidates and away from conservative firebrands, like the ones who cost them winnable Senate races in 2010 and 2012. Senate leaders even gave Tea Party icon Ted Cruz a spot on the party’s campaign committee, in a bid to quell damaging primary challenges.

But those efforts created a backlash, conservatives say. And Cruz won’t even endorse his Texas colleague Cornyn, the minority whip, in his primary fight. “The establishment signaled very early in this election that they were going to be hostile to the grassroots,” says Matt Hoskins, executive director of the Senate Conservatives Fund, a group that’s been helping to bankroll primary challengers. “They sent a message that said, ‘We don’t care what you think, we don’t value your opinion, and we’re going to muscle you out.’”

Tempers ran especially hot during October’s government shutdown, when conservatives resented Senate leaders for abandoning a mission to blunt President Barack Obama’s health-care-reform law. By the time the conservative website Breitbart reported last month that McConnell had said during a conference call that the Tea Party movement is “nothing but a bunch of bullies” whom he would “punch … in the nose,” activists were ready to believe the worst. It mattered little when the Washington Examiner made it clear McConnell had only used that language about the Senate Conservatives Fund specifically.

“What we’ve seen over the last few months is unprecedented hostility from the party leaders in Washington toward their own voters and their own base of support,” Hoskins says.

Establishment-friendly Republicans, not surprisingly, see things quite differently. They argue they’re the ones leading a backlash against overzealous conservatives ready to nominate time-bomb candidates like Christine O’Donnell and Todd Akin, who will drop tone-deaf lines about witchcraft and “legitimate rape” just in time to blow winnable races.

“Groups saying ‘You can’t have a voice in the primaries,’ but then we have to pick up the tab for candidates you nominate, our supporters wanted to get involved in these primaries,” Republican überstrategist Karl Rove tells TIME. Rove helps run the Conservative Victory Project. “The backlash was against the idea that the Senate Conservatives Fund [and other outside groups] are the only ones allowed to be involved in primaries,” he added.

While the Conservative Victory Project has yet to do much in the way of paid advertising — it’s still early in the cycle — it has been active in researching possible candidates, advising donors where to direct funds, and warning off conservative groups from candidates who could be trouble, according to people familiar with its operations. The message being communicated to conservative activists, as one insider put it: “If we’re not there for the takeoff, don’t expect us to be there for the landing.”

And if it seems from 30,000 feet like electable incumbents are about to start dropping like flies as Dick Lugar and Bob Bennett did in recent cycles, the view from ground level is more favorable. With the exception of high-profile races in Kentucky and Mississippi, many of the other incumbents are facing challengers nowhere near as potent.

“The only one on the Senate side that’s serious is [in Mississippi]. I don’t see others that are,” says Charlie Black, a longtime Republican lobbyist and strategist. “It’s a free country, and anyone’s entitled to run. But we haven’t had that many actually.”

A Politico report that conservative groups are so far holding their fire in Texas Representative Steve Stockman’s last-minute campaign against Cornyn is the clearest sign yet that even would-be cage rattlers have been spooked by so many winnable Senate races that slipped away because of flawed candidates in recent years. “I would want to see Stockman vetted well so we don’t have an ‘oops’ moment,” one local Tea Party leader told Politico.

The danger for Republicans is not so much that incumbents who could easily win re-election will get knocked off before they can even make it to November, but that precious money and manpower will be spent on them when it could be directed elsewhere in the party’s effort to take back control of the Senate. That larger campaign has little if any margin for error: Republicans need to pick up six seats to end the Democrats’ 55-45 majority.

“Every single dollar you spend on Steve Stockman, every single dollar that gets spent on a race like that, is a dollar that you’re not spending against [Democrats],” GOP strategist Rick Wilson says. “We ought to be pursuing the decapitation of the Democratic majority, rather than a suicidal feud that’s going to come to nothing.”

Wilson, a consultant who straddles the Tea Party–vs.-Establishment chasm better than many, adds: “I’m not saying the Establishment is without fault. The desire to pick and choose, especially when it’s an open primary, has led to a lot of the absurd situations we got into in the past. The Tea Party would stop acting out if the Republican Party would bring them inside the tent.”

That leaves many GOP leaders just hoping, as they have all year, that Republicans will stay out of their own way. “I think it’s just going to get worse and worse for the Democrats with Obamacare,” Black says. “If we can stay out of our own way and not create distractions that allow Democrats to get on offense, it’s going to be a great year for us.”