After seeing three senators fall during primaries in 2010 and 2012, as well as insurgents knock off establishment-backed Republicans in key seats, GOP strategists adopted an overwhelming force doctrine for handling primary challenges. They leveraged their financial edge and set out to define the opponent early, before he or she could gain momentum among the conservative grassroots, using modern technology and also spending heavily on positive TV ads to improve the incumbent’s standing among conservative voters.
That strategy was considered essential in protecting GOP incumbents like Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts and Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander in the 2014 midterms.
“The culture of primaries within the Senate GOP campaign apparatus is where the entire party needs to go,” said Josh Holmes, McConnell’s 2014 campaign manager whose firm, Cavalry, worked for McCain and several Republican incumbents. “If your job is to win elections you don’t just throw up your hands and say, gosh, I sure hope voters don’t pick the guy who can’t possibly win.”
The old sports adage that winning begets winning, and the corollary that losing begets losing, might apply here. In early 2014 a collection of Washington-based groups with ties to tea party activists were on the march, helping challengers in a clutch of primaries, including in a challenge to McConnell.
Now, after losing big in 2014, and barely engaging in 2016, those groups are a shell of their former selves.