By Nick Carey
CHICAGO (Reuters) - The U.S. Congress prevented hefty tax hikes and spending cuts with a "fiscal cliff" deal this week, but grassroots conservatives are already seeking 2014 primary challengers for high-profile Republican lawmakers who backed the deal.
Few challengers have yet come forward. But fiscally conservative activists irate at Republicans who voted to raise some taxes without cutting spending are casting about for opponents to Republicans including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and senators Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.
"Many people here have watched Mitch McConnell's voting record and are dissatisfied with what they've seen," said Eric Wilson, executive director of the Kentucky 9/12 project, a Tea Party group in McConnell's home state. "There are some potential candidates working in the background and doing the right thing" including visiting Kentucky's conservatives to gauge support.
Wilson declined to divulge names, citing McConnell's fundraising prowess that allowed him to amass almost $19 million for his 2008 re-election bid. McConnell could not be reach for comment.
"Anyone who sticks their neck out now will get their head cut off," he added. "But there are definitely people here with real potential."
In the 2010 midterm elections the Tea Party movement took the Republican "establishment" by surprise with high-profile primary victories over more conventional candidates and brought a wave of freshmen to the House of Representatives.
But despite successes in the primaries in 2012, most notably the defeat of Indiana's six-term Republican Senator Dick Lugar by state treasurer Richard Mourdock, conservative candidates fared poorly in the general election.
Tea Party supporters claim 2014 should be different as lower turnout in midterm years allows fiscal conservatives to punch above their weight.
"Presidential politics in 2012 sucked oxygen out of the conversation in local races," said Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, which coordinates with Tea Party groups around the country. "So to us, 2014 looks more like 2010."
After some disastrous showings by Tea Party candidates, most notably Christine O'Donnell in Delaware in 2010 who ended up running a television ad denying she was a witch, conservatives are on the lookout for credible candidates who can run effective campaigns and raise sufficient funds for a general election.
It is reasonable to expect challenges to some Republicans from the right in 2014, said James Henson, a politics professor at the University of Texas in Austin.
"Whether they use the name Tea Party or not is irrelevant," he said. "The DNA of their movement has now been spliced into the DNA of the Republican Party."
'IN MAJOR TROUBLE'
Previous battles in Congress have been marked by Tea Party activists around the country bombarding their elected representatives, mostly Republicans, calling on them to hold the conservative line.
Many did not bother ahead of the fiscal cliff deal, a bipartisan agreement to raise tax rates on incomes of more than $450,000 per household.
"We knew the Republican leadership would cave in," said Debbie Dooley, a coordinator at national umbrella group Tea Party Patriots and a founder of the Atlanta Tea Party. "So we didn't expend a lot of energy on this issue."
Instead, Dooley said activists in her home state of Georgia are focused on educating voters about America's spiraling debt and seeking a replacement for Saxby Chambliss, who was forced into a runoff election in 2008 and only narrowly managed to return to the Senate.
No one has announced a challenge to Chambliss, but Georgia representatives Tom Price and Paul Broun are seen as potential candidates. Chambliss could not be reached for comment.
"If a credible candidate comes forward, then Saxby Chambliss is in major trouble," Dooley said.
In South Carolina, Joe Dugan of the Myrtle Beach Tea Party said there are credible alternatives to Senator Lindsey Graham, including three representatives elected in 2010 who have been reliably conservative on most issues.
"I am over 90 percent certain that if there is a reliably conservative candidate in 2014 he will have my total support," against Senator Graham, Dugan said.
Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity which has backing from the billionaire oil and gas brothers Charles and David Koch, said it is too early to say whether the group will get involved in primary challenges in 2014.
But the group, which raised $140 million in 2012 compared to $51 million in 2011, will focus on educating voters in 2013 on how their representatives voted on the fiscal cliff and the upcoming U.S. debt limit debate.
"We aim to hold elected officials accountable," he said. "Lawmakers will not be judged solely on how they voted on the fiscal cliff, but it is a big vote to get wrong."
Some conservative activists admit they face a steep climb at best if they want to unseat their local Republican representative. The West Chester Tea Party in House Speaker John Boehner's district in southwestern Ohio, for instance, has begun looking for a challenger to him even though he amassed nearly $22 million for his 2012 re-election bid.
"We've been getting emails from around the district and around the country asking if this is the best we can do for a representative," West Chester Tea Party member Ann Becker said. "That's not an easy question to answer."
"It will be a David-versus-Goliath battle if we do find somebody, but nothing is impossible," she added.
Unlike Indiana's Dick Lugar, who refused to recant on key votes that angered Tea Party activists, Utah Senator Orrin Hatch tacked rightward to defeat a primary challenge in 2012.
The University of Texas' Henson said that in the months to come the behavior of Republican lawmakers who voted for the fiscal cliff may show how seriously they take the threat of primary challenges next year.
"We will have to see what kind of compensatory behavior we see from Republicans," Henson said. "I suspect we will see more conservative Republicans try to make up for the fiscal cliff by trying to revert to form on other issues."
(Editing by Alistair Bell and Lisa Shumaker)