TIME Tea Party

Why the Tea Party Forgives Reagan’s Sins

Michael Evans/Zuma Press

On the 10th anniversary of his death, a look at the president whose name has become synonymous with 'conservative'

When David Knittle decided to form a local Tea Party group in 2009, he knew exactly what to call it. Like many conservatives, he describes himself as a Reagan Republican. “Ronald Reagan represents to me all that is great about America,” he says. To Knittle, a Los Angeles–area health-care worker in his mid-50s, the Tea Party embodied the same set of values that Reagan espoused: sound economic policy, lower taxes, smaller government and more individual freedom. And so he dubbed the group Reagan’s Regiments—a title coined by Reagan himself, who bequeathed it to his army of supporters in his 1989 farewell address.

The homage was hardly surprising. Ten years after his death, Ronald Reagan remains the closest thing the Republican Party has to a secular saint. As the GOP struggles to chart a course back to the White House, Reagan is its lodestar, one of the few leaders on whose greatness the party’s fractious factions can agree. That view is shared in the Tea Party movement, a constellation of grassroots organizations that tend to regard most elected Republicans as only marginally better than Democrats. When the movement began brewing in 2009, Reagan’s name, image and famous adages about the evils of big government became as ubiquitous at Tea Party rallies as tricorn hats and Gadsden flags.

“He was the Tea Party of his time,” Michael Reagan, one of the president’s sons, declared in 2010. “He would have been at the forefront of the Tea Party movement, urging it on and devoting every last ounce of his energy to its progress in restoring America.”

Perhaps, but if Reagan were to take the measure of the Tea Party in 2014, he might conceivably turn and flee. Conversely, the Tea Party’s continuing idolatry of Reagan is somewhat curious. At one time or another, the 40th president smashed nearly every commandment the conservative movement regards as sacred. A closer look at Reagan’s time in office would suggest that he is a less-than-ideal fit for a sometimes rigid political movement that is willing to allow the government to shut down when its demands aren’t met.

Consider Reagan’s record on what the Tea Party holds most dear. He proposed the largest tax hike by any governor in the history of the United States. As president, he raised taxes 11 times, never submitted a balanced-budget request, hiked the debt ceiling 18 times and bemoaned the congressional brinkmanship that “consistently brings the government to the edge of default before facing its responsibility.” Plus, the federal deficit nearly tripled.

The apostasies aren’t just fiscal. Reagan was a onetime union leader who extolled the virtues of collective bargaining. As governor of California, he championed environmental legislation and signed a bill making it easier to get an abortion. The only U.S. president to divorce, he incensed the Christian right by nominating a socially moderate judge, the future swing vote Sandra Day O’Connor, to serve on the Supreme Court. He cut sweeping deals with liberal legislators like Tip O’Neill, the Democratic speaker of the House. He signed a major overhaul of the U.S. immigration system that ultimately granted amnesty to some 3 million undocumented immigrants.

All these moves are anathema to the Tea Party movement. “There’s a kind of delusional quality in the Tea Party’s affinity for Reagan,” says Matthew Dallek, author of the 2000 book The Right Moment: Ronald Reagan’s First Victory and the Decisive Turning Point in American Politics. “Certainly Reagan governed in a way that the Tea Party, to the extent they’re true to their beliefs, would probably find abhorrent.”

Even some Tea Party members who came of age under Reagan and consider him a great president are puzzled by the way he’s worshipped. “There’s an irony in the idolization of Reagan,” admits Ned Ryun, a conservative strategist and the president of American Majority, a group that trains Tea Party activists how to run for local office. “He would be considered today a very, very soft conservative—if not a moderate.”

That’s a far cry from Reagan’s reputation during his rise to power, when he was regarded by many as an archconservative ideologue. But the party has lurched rightward during Barack Obama’s presidency. Today, in a modern Republican nominating contest dominated by activists who prize purity and punish compromise, Reagan’s record might work against him. One marker of the GOP’s evolution came during a Republican presidential debate in 2011, when the eight candidates arrayed onstage were asked whether they would accept a deal of $10 in spending cuts for every dollar of tax increases. Each vowed to turn it down. The crowd erupted in applause.

So why does the Tea Party venerate Reagan, who violated so many of its values? Part of it, say Tea Party activists, was his matchless ability to market conservatism to the masses. He was an unabashed believer in the tenets of American exceptionalism, individual initiative and the free market—and enumerated their merits with the fervor of the converted. Nor, supporters say, would he back away from his beliefs. After Barry Goldwater’s drubbing in 1964, most political observers pronounced conservatism dead. Reagan built a coalition out of its ashes.

“That’s the kind of stuff that makes Reagan such an icon for the Tea Party movement,” says Jeff Reynolds, a Republican political consultant and chairman of the Portland-based Oregon Tea Party. “He talked passionately and eloquently about conservatism and the values that make America great. If you’re looking for somebody who espouses the conservative ideal and articulates why more government is a bad thing, there’s virtually nobody better.”

Reagan is admired for many qualities, one of which is simply that the public loves a winner, and he piled up plenty of impressive, and even historic, victories. In 1980 and 1984, he authored two electoral blowouts. He is also credited with winning the Cold War, the epic struggle of the second half of the 20th century, without firing a shot. At a moment of dwindling national morale, he toppled a seemingly ascendant communist threat.

“President Reagan understood that weakness is an invitation to war,” says Republican senator Ted Cruz. The Texan, part of a new generation of Tea Party icons, might find fault with some of Reagan’s domestic accomplishments, but he says he patterns his own foreign policy after the 40th president’s “peace through strength” credo. “The surest way to avoid war is to be strong enough to defend yourself,” Cruz says. “And by rebuilding our defense and speaking the truth, Reagan accomplished, in concert with Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II, the most extraordinary victory for peace in centuries.”

During the early phases of his career, the Republican establishment derided Reagan as a dangerous extremist. A former actor from outside the party’s clubby confines, he was widely viewed as inexperienced. In 1976 he had the temerity to challenge a sitting president from his own party, running to the right of incumbent Gerald Ford. He lost, but in the process proved that the country had a taste for his flavor of conservatism. And there is no question that the Tea Party sees in Reagan’s career a narrative arc it would like to repeat. “Members of the Tea Party would love to see themselves as rebels who are reviled by the mainstream,” says Dallek, the historian, “but who herald the American future.”

Tea Partyers who take a textured view of Reagan’s shortcomings are willing to give him a pass. They note that his deficit spending came during the military buildup of the Cold War, and at a time when the national debt was smaller; that his tax hikes were offset by cuts; that compromise is a necessary part of divided government. “You don’t get everything you want as a president,” says Knittle, the founder of Reagan’s Regiments.

“His record is not as conservative as it could have been, and there are certainly issues on which we disagree,” says Reynolds. “But you always want to look at the big picture instead of nitpicking over issues. Reagan wasn’t afraid to be conservative on the stump. He didn’t moderate his views. He didn’t sell out his ideals. He found a way to express conservative principles in a way that won people over.”

And that includes members of the Tea Party, who have demonstrated that they hold those who refuse to sell out in the highest regard and will likely remain loyal to Reagan’s memory—at least until a more strident conservative ascends to the White House.

This essay originally appeared in Reagan: His Political Life and Lasting Legacy.

TIME 2014 Election

Primaries Pit Parties’ Old Guard Against New

Thad Cochran Primary Election
U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Mississippi, greets supporters at a pre-election day rally at the Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Museum in Jackson, Miss., on June 2, 2014. Joe Ellis—AP

The headlines scream of surreptitious videos, nasty intramural spats and Silicon Valley influence peddlers. But among the eight states holding primary elections on Tuesday, the two marquee contests can be distilled to a simple choice: whether Republican and Democratic primary voters decide to jettison the old guard for a taste of the future.

In Mississippi’s Republican Senate primary, incumbent Thad Cochran’s seat is the Tea Party’s best remaining shot this year to topple an incumbent. A six-term incumbent with a patrician’s manner and a taste for pork-barrel spending, Cochran, 76, can seem like a relic of a different era. He has served Mississippi in the Senate since the Carter administration, and his skill at securing federal dollars for this cash-strapped state is borne out by the facilities across it that bear his name. He has said he doesn’t “really know a lot” about the Tea Party movement that has been shaking up the GOP for five years running now.

In normal times, Cochran’s earmarking prowess and Washington clout might have made him a model senator. This year it makes him big game for RINO-hunting groups across the GOP’s right wing. And if Cochran is an icon of the party’s past, his insurgent challenger is an emblem of the party’s new regime. Chris McDaniel, a 41-year-old state senator, disdains earmarks and has skirted some questions about whether he would have voted for a relief bill that ameliorated the damages of Hurricane Katrina. He presents himself as a pure conservative, and makes clear that he would eschew the federal dollars on which Cochran—the ranking member on the Senate appropriations committee—has partially staked his re-election. “I’m not going to do anything for you,” McDaniel told a local audience recently. “I’m going to get the government off your back, then I’m gonna let you do it for yourself.”

While the personalities and the politics are different, the juxtaposition between old and new is equally stark in Tuesday’s primary in California’s 17th Congressional District. Since 2001, the Bay Area region has been represented by Democrat Mike Honda. Like Cochran, Honda is a popular septuagenarian with support from his party’s traditional base. As such, he also became the target of a hostile takeover attempt from a group that may represent the party’s next generation.

The 17th district encompasses swaths of Silicon Valley, and tech titans like Sean Parker, Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg have plowed cash into the campaign account of a challenger they hope will better represent the industry’s interests. That candidate, 37-year-old Ro Khanna, has drafted some of the same bundlers and data whizzes who powered President Barack Obama to reelection. An Ivy league-educated intellectual property lawyer, Khanna is the kind of centrist technocrat that Silicon Valley—and the Democratic Party that increasingly relies on its largesse—has come to prize.

Honda has the edge in name recognition, the support of labor unions and a long record that resonates in the district. But if Khanna survives Tuesday’s “jungle” primary—in which the top two vote-getters regardless of party move to the general election—he could prove a disruptive political force come November.

TIME 2014 Election

These Are the Dirtiest Campaign Tricks of the 2014 Elections… So Far

The midterm elections are still six months away, but political operatives are already getting down in the muck with phony robocalls, misleading ads, and other sordid tactics

Campaigns are a business for high-minded people willing to do terrible things to promote the public good. The best political operatives are cheerful killers, happy to savage their foes for a few morsels of earned media. Candidates need a thick hide to survive the character assassination that comes with running for office; they know their words will be distorted, their pasts cracked open and rearranged in seamy packaging. This is how the game works, and it isn’t changing.

But every campaign season is marked by a few incidents that are beneath the standard recriminations, so deep in the muck they smell sulfurous. This year has been no different. Here are five of the sleaziest tricks of the 2014 cycle:

5) The taping of Mitch McConnell

As the Senate Republican leader geared up for re-election, a bumbling Democratic super PAC called Progress Kentucky tried to take him down. Activists with the group were accused last spring of surreptitiously taping a campaign strategy meeting from the hallway outside McConnell’s Louisville headquarters. The gambit backfired, leaving the group (which also attacked the ethnicity of McConnell’s Chinese-American wife) in legal trouble and allowing McConnell to play the victim while he was launching a relentlessly negative campaign of his own.

4) The war on Wehby

The knives came out for Monica Wehby after the little-known Oregon doctor seized a lead in the GOP Senate primary. First came reports that Wehby, a pediatric neurosurgeon, was linked to a child-abuse case involving a mother accused of harming her children by having them undergo allegedly unnecessary surgeries. Although Wehby performed some of those surgeries, she was not accused of any wrongdoing. Then came word this week that she was accused last year of “stalking” an ex-boyfriend, as well as reports of physical altercations between the doctor and her ex-husband. At least one of these skeletons was excavated by Oregon Democrats, who worry that a Wehby primary win on Tuesday could jeopardize the seat held by Senator Jeff Merkley.

3) A phony outing

At the 11th hour of a state house race in conservative Cobb County, Ga., a robocall went out this week, allegedly from a gay rights organization. The record touted a phony “endorsement” of one of the candidates, whom the message suggested was gay. The candidate told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he is heterosexual.

2) Shades of Willie Horton

In March, a Democratic primary for an Illinois House seat in Northwest Chicago got ugly. Voters in the district began receiving mailers alleging that Will Guzzardi, a candidate challenging an incumbent backed by the state’s Democratic machine, favored lax restrictions on sex offenders. The ad’s sordid racial overtones apparently didn’t sit well with the district’s voters; Guzzardi won the primary by under 2,000 votes.

IMG_1682

1) The nursing home break-in

Tea Party conservatives are waging a furious battle to unseat Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran in the state’s Republican primary. At least one of them crossed the line. On May 16, a Mississippi blogger named Clayton Kelly was arrested on suspicion of unlawfully entering a nursing home to photograph Cochran’s bedridden wife, who suffers from dementia. According to the allegations, Kelly then posted an anti-Cochran video featuring the image. Cochran’s camp has raised questions about whether the plot was connected to the campaign of Chris McDaniel, the senator’s opponent in the June 3 primary.

TIME 2014 Election

Big Money Powers Big Business in GOP Primaries

Incumbent Congressman Mike Simpson speaks at a televised debate for the upcoming Republican primary election at the studios of Idaho Public Television in Boise, Idaho May 11, 2014.
Incumbent Congressman Mike Simpson speaks at a televised debate for the upcoming Republican primary election at the studios of Idaho Public Television in Boise, Idaho May 11, 2014. Patrick Sweeney—Reuters

The Republican Establishment is winning primaries across the country by investing money in races while the Tea Party stays home

Some residents of eastern Idaho began finding unusual political leaflets in their mailboxes in recent weeks. They were pop-up books with three-dimensional flaps, printed on fancy paper stock. Paid for by the National Association of Realtors, the leaflets plugged Representative Mike Simpson, the eight-term incumbent in Idaho’s Second District, as the best choice in Tuesday’s Republican primary.

Simpson’s primary race in sleepy Idaho is one of this year’s premier proxy fights between the insurgent and Establishment factions fighting for control of the Republican Party. Simpson has the support of the GOP’s powerful business lobbies, while attorney Bryan Smith earned the endorsements and backing of national conservative groups like the Club for Growth. The glitzy mailers, part of the realtors’ $300,000 campaign to boost Simpson, were a symbol of why he appears set to prevail, just like many other Establishment candidates on Tuesday and throughout the 2014 primary cycle.

Money talks in elections. And the GOP’s grandees are spending lots of it. A massive fundraising push is the biggest factor in the early success of the Establishment’s primary campaign, which aims to prop up vulnerable incumbents and defeat volatile insurgents who might jeopardize the party’s chances in November.

The Idaho contest is a case in point. A pragmatic ally of House Speaker John Boehner, Simpson came into the crosshairs of Tea Party groups for his votes to bail out the banks and increase the debt limit. The Club, the Senate Conservatives Fund (SCF) and a host of other Tea Party–aligned groups vowed to unseat Simpson, casting him as too liberal for the deep-red district. “In Idaho terms, it’s been a really heated race,” says Trevor Thorpe, executive director of the Idaho GOP.

But when it came time to back up the war cries with cash, the business lobbies followed through on their promises, while the Tea Party groups were mostly absent.

Simpson outraised Smith $1.9 million to $781,000, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. Outside groups backed Simpson by an even bigger margin, plowing $2.2 million into ads enumerating his merits. Defending Main Street Super PAC, a moderate Republican group dedicated to supporting more mainstream Republicans, spent nearly half a million dollars. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which outlined plans to secure Simpson’s nomination last fall, spent $725,000, held four events on the ground to tout Simpson and helped organize a robust coalition of business groups behind his candidacy. At least five other associations and business lobbies spent six figures to back Simpson, including the NRA. The incumbent also benefited from the endorsement of former presidential nominee Mitt Romney, an influential figure in a district with a high concentration of Mormons.

In contrast, the Club for Growth was the lone national conservative group to put major money behind Smith. The group’s PAC spent about $500,000 before pulling out of the race in late April. The decision was a tacit recognition that its money could be better spent in other contests, like the Nebraska Senate primary that its favored candidate, Ben Sasse, won last week. “We’re in a constant state of assessing and reassessing our races, moving resources in and out — depends on the day or week,” says Barney Keller, a spokesman for the Club.

The same fundraising advantage is expected to power Establishment candidates to victory in several primaries around the country on Tuesday. In Kentucky, Republican Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell is expected to coast to victory over conservative challenger Matt Bevin, thanks largely to his fundraising muscle. McConnell, the top Tea Party target this cycle, hauled in a jaw-dropping $21.7 million, dwarfing Bevin’s $3.7 million.

In Georgia’s Republican Senate primary, the GOP’s bundlers and business lobbies plowed money into the coffers of Establishment candidates, hoping to neutralize two Tea Party candidates whose record of inflammatory rhetoric gave Republican officials unpleasant flashbacks to Todd Akin’s 2012 musings on rape. Representative Jack Kingston, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee, led the pack by raising $5.6 million, while businessman David Perdue netted $4.6 million. The two self-described Tea Party Congressmen, Phil Gingrey and Paul Broun, raised $1.8 million and $1.6 million, respectively. Kingston, Perdue and former Georgia secretary of state Karen Handel are the three leading contenders in a primary that is expected to yield a July runoff.

And in Oregon, physician Monica Wehby leads conservative state legislator Jason Conger in GOP primary polls, thanks in part to a fundraising advantage. Business-friendly Republicans believe Wehby, considered the more moderate of the two candidates, would ease the party’s deficit with female voters.

“We think we’re going to have a good one tomorrow night in Idaho, in Kentucky and in Oregon,” says Scott Reed, chief strategist for the Chamber of Commerce. One of the main reasons, Reed says, is that apart from the Club, most of the groups that raise money by touting themselves as Tea Party champions often pocket the cash instead of spending it on candidates. “Most of the other groups are frauds. They’re moneymaking schemes for a handful of consultants,” Reed says. “We’re at a point where it’s a fault line in the party. They’ve left a lot of guys on the field.”

The anemic Tea Party fundraising has exposed an unseemly truth: an endorsement often benefits the group that makes it more than the candidate receiving it. Heralding candidates as the next conservative savior helps Tea Party organizations rake in bundles of money, which they often reinvest in more fundraising appeals instead of winning elections. “A lot of these groups are raising money, but they’re not spending it on campaigns,” says a conservative Republican strategist who requested anonymity to avoid offending allies. “Sooner or later these outside groups have to decide whether or not they want the Club and SCF to carry the entire load in these races.”

Tea Party organizations argue that even when they lose elections, they are shaping the party’s future by forcing candidates to hew more closely to conservative doctrine. “We’ve already changed the narrative, and the Republican Party is running on the principle of limited government,” Matt Kibbe, CEO of the conservative advocacy group FreedomWorks, told the Associated Press.

Yet changing the narrative is easier when your candidates win. FreedomWorks threw its support behind Smith in Idaho’s Second District last September, slamming Simpson as an “insider” who’s been “on the wrong side of all the major fiscal issues.” But in the end, it put less than $32,000 behind the campaign to beat him.

TIME Military

Shinseki: VA Allegations Make Me ‘Mad As Hell’

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on May 15, 2014, before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing to examine the state of Veterans Affairs health care.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on May 15, 2014, before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing to examine the state of Veterans Affairs health care. Cliff Owen—AP

Eric Shinseki, the Veterans Administration chief and a retired four-star general, testified on Capitol Hill about the Veterans Administration's 'secret' wait-list mess, but said very little about accusations that lengthy wait times led to preventable deaths

Eric Shinseki, the embattled Secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, pledged during a Senate hearing Thursday to investigate allegations that dozens of service members died while awaiting medical treatment in the U.S.

“Any allegation about any adverse incident like this makes me mad as hell. I could use stronger language here, Mr. Chairman, but in deference to the committee, I won’t,” Shinseki told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee in Washington.

Shinseki has been under mounting pressure in the wake of a report that at least 40 veterans had died while awaiting appointments at a VA hospital in Phoenix. The report, which alleged that local department officials maintained a secret list to hide lengthy wait times that led to preventable deaths, is part of a pattern of problems for the beleaguered agency, which serves more than 200,000 veterans each day.

Shinseki said little about the allegations, but promised to act “if any of these allegations are true, with regard to scheduling in Phoenix or elsewhere.”

The scandal has shaken the White House, where President Barack Obama has directed Shinseki, a retired Army general who has led the VA since 2009, to undertake a review of VA practices. Obama has also tapped top aide Rob Nabors to lead an Administration probe into the allegations of misconduct within the department. “While we get to the bottom of what happened in Phoenix, it’s clear the VA needs to do more to ensure quality care for our veterans,” Obama said in a statement.

Democrats and Republicans alike battered Shinseki for the department’s struggles on his watch. “Clearly this problem has gone on for far too long,” said Democratic Senator Patty Murray of Washington. “It is unfortunate that these leadership failures have dramatically shaken many veterans’ confidence in the system. Secretary Shinseki, I continue to believe that you take this seriously and want to do the right thing. But we have come to the point where we need more than good intentions.”

As Congressional Republicans demand Shinseki’s resignation, some senators cautioned angry observers to wait for the results of the investigation. “What happened in Phoenix?” said Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont who chairs the Senate panel overseeing the VA. “Well, the truth is we don’t know. But we are going to find out.”

TIME 2014 Election

Nebraska Senate Race Bridges Republican Divide

Nebraska Election Ben Sasse, Shane Osborn, Sid Dinsdale
This combo picture contains photos of Nebraska Senate candidates in the May 13, 2014 primary election. From left: Ben Sasse, Shane Osborn, Sid Dinsdale. Nati Harnik—AP

Both the frontrunners may fall in Nebraska, one of 2014's most competitive GOP primaries

The most interesting Republican primary of 2014 culminates Tuesday night in tiny Nebraska, where three candidates have a shot at winning a race that upends every tidy narrative about the party’s divisions.

Until recently, the contest to succeed retiring GOP Sen. Mike Johanns seemed like a two-man race between Ben Sasse and Shane Osborn. Sasse was cast as the Tea Party candidate after winning endorsements from a raft of national conservative groups and major elected officials. Osborn, a former Navy pilot and state treasurer, has support from influential party figures linked to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. As a result, the race has often been framed as a battle between the party’s Tea Party and establishment factions.

The reality is more complicated.

Tea Party groups are desperate for a Sasse victory. The movement’s chosen candidates are struggling to gain traction in a spate of high-profile races this year, and the youthful president of Nebraska’s Midland University might be the best chance for national groups like the Senate Conservatives Fund to score a win. But this is not your typical proxy fight between the GOP’s grassroots and grandees.

Some Nebraska conservatives actually prefer Osborn. Many of the same establishment strategists vying to squash Tea Party candidates elsewhere love Sasse. And while Sasse has worn the Tea Party mantle and cut soft ads emphasizing his Nebraska roots, his resume includes a stint in the Bush Administration and posts at Yale, Oxford and McKinsey. The national support for Sasse’s candidacy actually seems to have made Nebraskans suspicious. “That does rile a few people,” Faron Hines, an activist with the York County Tea Party, told TIME recently, after the conservative group FreedomWorks revoked its endorsement for Osborn and gave it to Sasse. “Who is he going to represent when he gets to Washington?”

Enter Sid Dinsdale. The snowy-haired president of a local bank has lagged behind Sasse and Osborn for months. But as the frontrunners trained their fire on each other, Dinsdale quietly consolidated support. Polls suggest a late surge. National groups like the Club for Growth were concerned enough to go up on air with ads blasting Dinsdale, suggesting that Sasse—one of the few candidates this year who bridges the party’s internal divides—could lose.

For proof that such an upset is possible, one need only look to the state’s junior Republican senator. In 2012, Deb Fischer pulled off an upset victory in a crowded Republican primary, coming from behind in the race’s final weeks in a race against two well-funded statewide officials. As the better-known frontrunners battered one another, Fischer slipped between them and sprinted to victory.

Dinsdale has tried to replicate that path. While he may lack Fischer’s folksy appeal to the state’s conservative base, he was able to pump $1 million of his own fortune into the race, enough to fund plenty of TV ads in a state with cheap media markets and less than two million people. The banker also drew a coveted endorsement from the Omaha World-Herald. “As Nebraska as they come,” the paper declared, in a pointed jab at the out-of-state money and muscle marshaled by his opponents.

All these swirling factors portend an exciting finish for one of the year’s best primary contests.

TIME 2014 Election

GOP Establishment Faces First 2014 Primary Tests

Thom Tillis
Republican senatorial candidate Thom Tillis speaks during a live televised debate at UNC-TV studios in Research Triangle Park, N.C., Monday, April 28, 2014. AP

Republican voters head to the polls in North Carolina and Ohio on Tuesday for the first major 2014 contests pitting the GOP's business-friendly moderates against its Tea Party faction, which one political strategist described as a party marked by "all talk and very little action"

Seven months after the government shutdown deepened divisions within the Republican Party, GOP voters head to the polls Tuesday for the first major 2014 contests between the party’s feuding factions.

The marquee matchup is in North Carolina, where state house speaker Thom Tillis needs to nab 40% of the GOP primary vote to avoid a painful and prolonged runoff for the party’s Senate nomination. Tillis is hovering around that threshold, according to a survey published Monday by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling. If he fails to garner 40%, the top two candidates will go to a runoff in July.

That would be a boon for Democrats’ hopes of holding the Senate. The incumbent Senator, North Carolina Democrat Kay Hagan, is considered to be among the most vulnerable this cycle, and an additional three months of internecine warfare would hamper the eventual GOP nominee.

But the race isn’t just an opening skirmish in the battle for the Senate. It’s also an early test for mainstream Republican grandees, who decided last fall to mount an unprecedented effort to defend vulnerable Republican incumbents and defeat shaky right-wing candidates who could jeopardize their chances of retaking the upper chamber in November.

Tillis, who is facing a Tea Party-backed libertarian and a Baptist pastor in Tuesday’s primary, has been buoyed by a tide of television ads run by establishment groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Karl Rove-founded super PAC American Crossroads. The Chamber and other Republican-leaning business groups have also spent heavily to defend Ohio GOP Rep. David Joyce, who faces a primary challenge Tuesday from a conservative state legislator in his northeast Ohio district.

These two races are the first of many 2014 contests that pit the GOP’s business-friendly moderates against a Tea Party faction that has alternately empowered and infuriated party elders since rising to prominence in 2010. Over the next month, primary voters across about 20 states are set to cast ballots that may help determine which wing of the party will prevail.

Among the most competitive races are the May 20 primary in Idaho’s Second Congressional District, where Republican Mike Simpson is facing a tough test from attorney Bryan Smith, and the June 3 GOP Senate primary in Mississippi, which sets six-term incumbent Thad Cochran against state senator Chris McDaniel. In both races, the incumbents have benefited from expensive ad campaigns by the Chamber of Commerce, while the challengers are getting big boosts from national conservative groups such as the Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund.

But apart from select races such as these, Tea Party outfits have struggled in their quest to unseat the cycle’s most vulnerable incumbents in some of the nation’s most conservative states.

Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell appears to be coasting toward victory in his primary fight against conservative challenger Matt Bevin. McConnell’s top lieutenant, Sen. John Cornyn, sailed to victory in Texas, and Tennessee’s Sen. Lamar Alexander looks set to do the same. Support for the Senate’s immigration bill hasn’t eaten into Sen. Lindsey Graham’s yawning lead in South Carolina. Revelations about Sen. Pat Roberts’ tenuous claims to residency in Kansas don’t seem to have ruined his quest for a fourth term. And in Georgia, two arch-conservative Tea Partiers are lagging behind the rest of the pack in a messy five-way Senate primary.

“They’ve run weaker candidates,” Scott Reed, chief political strategist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, says of the Tea Party groups. “They’ve been all talk and very little action.” If the GOP Establishment wins the first wave of primaries Tuesday, it will be a sign that the GOP’s grandees are the favorites in the Republican civil war of 2014.

TIME States

The Nevada Ranch Rebellion Takes a Racist Turn

Rancher Cliven Bundy poses at his home in Bunkerville, Nevada, April 11, 2014.
Rancher Cliven Bundy poses at his home in Bunkerville, Nevada, April 11, 2014. Jim Urquhart—Reuters

Cliven Bundy became an overnight icon for his refusal to pay the government to graze his cattle herd on public land in Nevada, but that stance lauded by some conservative media is becoming overshadowed by his recent pro-slavery comments

It doesn’t take much to mint an icon in this political climate. Cliven Bundy became one nearly overnight. The story of Bundy’s battle against federal bureaucrats fit neatly into a resonant narrative: the defiant land-owner taking a stand against government overreach.

As word of Bundy’s refusal to pay the federal government to graze his herd on public land spread, more than 1,000 armed sympathizers descended on his Nevada ranch in the desert outside of Las Vegas. When the U.S. Bureau of Land Management abandoned its effort to seize Bundy’s cattle, the rancher, 68, was celebrated as a hero in certain right-wing circles. Supporters compared the Battle of Bunkerville, Nev., to the American Revolution; there was even a hashtag, #AmericanSpring. With his ten-gallon hat and gruff rhetoric, Bundy was an irresistible symbol of a certain frontier ideal.

The reality was much different. Bundy’s herd of cattle has been illegally grazing on federal land for more than 20 years. He owes the government more than $1 million, which he refuses to pay because, he says, he does not recognize federal authority to collect it. While some conservative media outlets rushed to canonize Bundy, the vast majority of elected Republicans steered clear of the standoff, perhaps because the facts suggested Bundy was less a patriot than a deadbeat.

Or worse. Speaking to supporters on Saturday, Bundy digressed into a discussion of race. “I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro,” Bundy said, according to Adam Nagourney of the New York Times:

Mr. Bundy recalled driving past a public-housing project in North Las Vegas, “and in front of that government house the door was usually open and the older people and the kids — and there is always at least a half a dozen people sitting on the porch — they didn’t have nothing to do. They didn’t have nothing for their kids to do. They didn’t have nothing for their young girls to do.

“And because they were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do?” he asked. “They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”

These remarks will surely dim Bundy’s spotlight. The few national politicians who flocked to his cause have already denounced the remarks. Nevada Senator Dean Heller, who had praised Bundy’s supporters as “patriots,” released a statement Thursday morning calling his views on race “appalling.” Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, who said Bundy’s case raised a “legitimate constitutional question” about federal authority, called his remarks offensive. “I wholeheartedly disagree with him,” Paul said.

Conservative media and political outfits which had promoted Bundy’s cause fell silent. Fox News ignored the remarks, though journalist Greta Van Susteren, who has featured the story, released a statement condemning Bundy’s remarks. Americans for Prosperity’s Nevada branch, which also latched onto the ranch rebellion, condemned Bundy’s comments in a statement to TIME. “I think most people would agree that spending over a million dollars to chase ‘trespass cattle’ in the Nevada desert is a poor use of tax dollars,” says spokesman Zachary Moyle. “It’s important to note that our opposition to wasteful government spending in no way lends support to offensive remarks made by Mr. Bundy or anyone else.”

Calls to Bundy’s ranch and to a mobile phone belonging to his family went unanswered Thursday. Craig Leff, a spokesman for the BLM, told TIME the agency will “continue to pursue this matter administratively and judicially.” The Battle of Bunkerville is over. Now the backlash has begun.

This story was updated at 5:35 p.m. on April 24 to include comments from Americans for Prosperity

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