The tea party has spent six years causing trouble for establishment Republicans in primaries, and Donald Trump mopped the floor with them on his way to the party’s presidential nomination. But suddenly, with the 2016 primary season winding down, the establishment is going on offense, pushing back hard against candidates backed by the hardline conservative House Freedom Caucus, including defeated GOP Rep. Tim Huelskamp — setting the stage for a titanic intra-Republican fight during the next Congress.
A collection of Republican donors and operatives loosely organized around several super PACs decided this summer to adopt newly aggressive tactics against GOP “obstructionists” — or as John Hart, a former aide to ex-Sen. Tom Coburn, calls them: “Rebels In Name Only” — after years of growing tea-party influence in Republican primaries and the halls of Congress.
Low-profile House candidates from Kansas to Georgia watched in astonishment this summer as hundreds of thousands of super PAC dollars poured into their primaries. The top aide for Roger Marshall, the Republican who beat Huelskamp in his Kansas primary, remembers sitting in his car when his phone pinged with news that donors unknown were about to inject a half-million dollars into rural Western Kansas.
“Who are these people?” Brent Robertson, Marshall’s campaign manager, thought at the time, weeks before his candidate became one of the few House primary challengers to knock off an incumbent this year.
Different groups and people involved have slightly different priorities, but the biggest goals were to both win specific primaries — Huelskamp’s clashes with House GOP leadership were well-known — and send a broader message.