FREMONT, Neb. (AP) — With Republican Ben Sasse, tea party groups figured out the riddle of winning elections in 2014: Claim a Republican as a member of the tribe, even if his approach to politics doesn't line up exactly with their own.
That's not an option in next week's Georgia and Kentucky primaries and later in other Republican bastions where the groups already have committed to true ideologues with tea party credentials as authentic as Sasse's were convenient.
None have the look of a runaway winner, as Sasse was Tuesday in Nebraska's five-way primary. It sets up a November that could, for the first time since the movement burst onto the scene five years ago, lack a full-bred tea party candidate on the ballot for U.S. Senate.
"My overall sense is that the balance of power is shifting back to mainstream conservative wing of the Republican Party," said GOP pollster Greg Strimple. Since its rise in 2009, the tea party has realized some of its biggest successes in the Senate. Mike Lee's defeat of Utah Republican Sen. Robert Bennett in 2010 was a harbinger of victories to come against establishment candidates. Among them: Rand Paul over Trey Grayson in Kentucky; Ted Cruz over David Dewhurst in Texas; and Marco Rubio over Charlie Crist in Florida.
But in 2012, the movement stumbled. Tea party-backed candidates again won Senate primaries but lost nominally Republicans seats to Democrats in the general election, including after making insensitive comments about rape in Missouri and Indiana.
This year, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has urged his incumbents to campaign aggressively in primaries to avoid both potential fates. In the first Republican primary of the year, Texas Sen. John Cornyn took no risks, spending $3 million to crush his little-known challengers.
Next week in Georgia, Rep. Jack Kingston, an establishment Republican, is one of three candidates expected to battle for two runoff spots. While former Secretary of State Karen Handel could give tea party activists a presence in that two-month runoff campaign, another tea party favorite, Rep. Paul Broun, trails the leading candidates in the seven-person field.
Incumbent GOP Sen. Pat Roberts also is the favorite to win the August GOP primary in Kansas, while McConnell should glide past a fading tea party challenger next Tuesday in Kentucky despite the roughly $2 million spent by the tea party affiliated Senate Conservatives Fund to knock him out of the race.
The tea party's best chance for a pickup is likely in the June 3 primary in Mississippi, where the same national groups that sided with Sasse in Nebraska have weighed in heavily for state Sen. Chris McDaniel in his challenge of six-term GOP Sen. Thad Cochran. The Senate Conservative Fund, whose support for Sasse led him into a spat with McConnell earlier this year, had spent $505,000 on television advertising as of this week.
"The question is, are the Cochran voters going to hold?" said Henry Barbour, a Mississippi Republican and scion of a GOP establishment family who is running a pro-Cochran group. And while tea party groups who spent lavishly to elect Sasse claimed his victory their own, he doesn't have any actual roots in the movement that suggest he'd take a tea party approach to his work in the Senate.
Since moving back to Nebraska five years ago, the 42-year-old president of Midland University and former undersecretary of Health and Human Services for President George W. Bush has been absent from the tea party scene in Fremont, a town of 26,000 a short drive northwest from Omaha.
Sasse supporters such as Paul Von Behren, a tea party leader in Fremont, were won over by a campaign that produced a video urging Republicans, "starting with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, to show some actual leadership." Von Behren said Wednesday his group "would see a conflict with Mitch McConnell as a good thing."
But within minutes of being declared the nominee, and thus the heavy favorite to win in November, Sasse was on the phone to McConnell. He pledged support both for the GOP Senate leader and for his strategy of heading off problematic primary candidates to protect GOP incumbents.
In Washington, Sasse said, he wants to bring "private sector solutions" to issues such as health care and education. It's an indirect critique of the strategy of tea party senators such as Cruz, who have focused much of their efforts on obstructing the efforts of the Obama administration.
To do that, he said, McConnell needs a GOP majority more than anything else. "There's no intrinsic conflict in that," Sasse said.
Associated Press reporter Bill Barrow contributed to this report from Atlanta, Ga.