Republican senators are attacking GOP challengers earlier and more aggressively than in past elections, including using opposition research to try to knock out upstart rivals before they become serious threats.
These senators are eager to avoid the fate of colleagues who fell victim to tea party-backed rivals they had shrugged off.
In Kentucky, the tea party-backed challenger to Sen. Mitch McConnell is trying to explain old investor letters that recently surfaced, undermining his criticisms of government bailouts of banks.
In Kansas, the physician trying to oust three-term Sen. Pat Roberts is apologizing for posting graphic images of gunshot victims on his Facebook page some years ago.
Both stories have the markings of ‘‘opposition research,’’ the term for time-consuming digging into documents that well-funded campaigns often carry out. Campaigns sometimes offer the material as tips to news outlets, or seek to publicize it themselves.
Mainstream Republican groups that once took a hands-off view of primaries are now active in undermining challengers they view as weaker potential candidates against Democrats.
‘‘We’re not anti-conservative,’’ said Rob Collins, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. ‘‘We’re just anti-people-who-can’t-win.’’
Collins said his group dug up bankruptcy records that helped knock out a potential tea party challenger to West Virginia Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, seen as the strongest Republican contender for the Senate seat being vacated by Democrat Jay Rockefeller.
Collins, whose group supports Roberts, defended the tough tactics against Wolf. ‘‘Do they have some fantasy that Democrats wouldn’t use that?’’ Collins said of the Facebook images. [emphasis added]
Republican strategist Brian Nick said senators have learned from watching the fate of colleagues such as Lugar. The lesson, he said, is ‘‘don’t allow one of these candidates to get traction, because then they can cause major headaches.’’Sean Sullivan writes at The Washington Post:
Part of the reason tea party challengers are feeling heat like never before is that incumbents and their allies have simply had more practice. Before the rise of the tea party in the 2010 midterms, sitting senators were unseated only four times in more than a quarter century. It's happened four more times since 2010.
Where they failed in the past to recognize the threat posed by these challengers, now senators and supporters are redoubling their efforts to avoid getting taken down by the right as conservatives have flooded the field with ambitious challengers who idolize conservative rabble-rousers like Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah). (Half of the GOP senators running for reelection this year are facing primary challengers.)
The result, strategists say, is a sharper opposition research effort and a more robust supplementary movement from deep-pocketed groups.
"Republicans felt burned by Senate challengers and incumbents that weren't ready for prime time in the last cycle," said Ron Bonjean, a former House and Senate GOP leadership aide. "Many Republicans felt that we could have taken the Senate majority back if it wasn't for rookie mistakes made by candidates. The combined opposition research efforts of outside groups and investigative journalists have created a political 'Hunger Games' that could eventually weed out weak primary candidates who could implode over time.