Rep. Steve Stockman's antiestablishment quest to topple Sen. John Cornyn of Texas is winding toward an abysmal finish: Polls suggest that he'll not only fall short of knocking out the incumbent during next week's primary, he'll be lucky to outperform a handful of tea-party unknowns. Stockman was never embraced by outside conservative groups, but many grassroots activists were expecting a more vigorous challenge to an establishment denizen than what the quirky congressman provided.
Stockman's tale isn't a unique one. The last month has provided numerous examples of tea-party favorites proving they're not ready for political prime time. Indeed, of the six Republican senators facing primary opposition this year, only one—Thad Cochran of Mississippi—looks like he's facing a credible threat.
Take Milton Wolf in Kansas. The radiologist's campaign was handed a race-altering gift when The New York Times reported that his opponent, Sen. Pat Roberts, barely kept his residency in Kansas. But now his effort is faltering under the weight of revelations that he published and joked about graphic images of his patients. The National Republican Senatorial Committee has actively promoted Wolf's travails to reporters as eagerly as the group has dished oppo against vulnerable Democrats.
Or take Matt Bevin in Kentucky, whose personal fortune was supposed to help fuel a well-funded effort to take down Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Instead, he's deflecting accusations from his nominal allies that he backed the government's multibillion-dollar Wall Street bailout during the height of the financial crisis. McConnell's aggressive campaign and outside allies are playing a pivotal role in preventing Bevin's campaign from getting any traction.
The trifecta of disappointing returns for conservatives isn't coincidental. In previous years, insurgent conservative candidates like Christine O'Donnell weren't taken seriously in the GOP primary, with the problematic parts of their record hidden away until a general election.
But with incumbents now keenly aware of the danger they face in a primary, those same tea-party-aligned hopefuls are finding themselves under more scrutiny than ever. And oftentimes they're not holding up well.
"Inevitably, in a statewide race, any issues in any candidate's background would come to the forefront," said Brian Walsh, a former NRSC communications director. "And we're seeing incumbents who aren't taking anything for granted."