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The Tea Party Wins

Senator Mitch McConnell won Tuesday's Republican primary in Kentucky. Next to the minority leader is his wife, Elaine Chao.
Senator Mitch McConnell won Tuesday's Republican primary in Kentucky. Next to the minority leader is his wife, Elaine Chao.
Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Conventional wisdom holds that this spring’s spate of primaries shows the Republican establishment beating back tea party challengers.

Establishment victories, the CW goes on to assert, give the GOP a better chance to win control of the Senate this fall because the party won’t be running flawed candidates, such as Todd Akin in Missouri, Sharron Angle in Nevada, and Christine O’Donnell in Delaware. In 2010 and 2012, the GOP lost races it might have won because of nominees like Angle, Akin, and others. Those defeats may have cost the Republican Party control of the Senate.

No doubt the more obvious wing nuts are in retreat this year. On Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell beat back a tea party challenger in Kentucky, and two ultra-conservatives in Georgia trailed the two candidates thought to have the broadest appeal in the general election. The two leaders advanced to a July 22 runoff.

With few exceptions — Ben Sasse’s primary victory for a Senate seat from Nebraska is one — establishment-backed candidates have prevailed.

But here’s the rub: Establishment candidates may be winning GOP primaries, but moderates are not. To put it another way, tea party-backed candidates may be losing, but the tea party agenda is triumphant.

Tea party leaders are quick to point out that establishment candidates are adopting tea party principles. “Everybody runs like a tea party candidate now,” said Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, a tea party group. “Everybody is running against Obamacare and against overspending in Washington. It wasn’t always like that with the Republican establishment. I don’t even recognize McConnell from where he was a few years ago.”

House Speaker John A. Boehner says much the same thing. “There’s not that big a difference,” the Ohio Republican observes, “between what you call the tea party and your average conservative. We’re against Obamacare, we think taxes are too high, we think government is too big. I wouldn’t continue to sing that same song.”

Thom Tillis in North Carolina proves Kebbe and Boehner right. Backed by a few million dollars from mainstream Republican fundraising groups, Tillis easily defeated a libertarian doctor and a Baptist minister in the GOP primary earlier this month. He now faces Senator Kay Hagan, one of the Democrats more vulnerable incumbents.

Tillis may have establishment support, but he’s no moderate. As Speaker of the North Carolina House, TIllis oversaw the state’s abrupt shift to the right. Since 2011, when the GOP took over legislature, Tillis and his allies have passed a constitutional ban on gay marriage, abolished the estate tax, required a photo ID for voting, enacted severe abortion restrictions, funded educational vouchers, eased restrictions on fracking, and cut unemployment insurance.

It’s enough to make a tea partier’s heart go aflutter!

There are some differences between the so-called Republican establishment and the tea party. Immigration, for example, divides the party, with leadership types like Boehner understanding that the GOP must appeal to Latinos if it hopes to win a national election in the future while the more rightwing, ultra-conservatives refuse to compromise on what they call amnesty.

But, for the most part, the differences are more stylistic than substantive. The more aggressive tea partiers rail against what they call business as usual in Washington, while the party regulars know that occasionally it may be necessary to compromise with congressional Democrats and President Obama. But on the issues, all Republicans these days sing from the same hymnal.

It wasn’t always this way. There was a time, not so long ago, when the Republican Party had a conservative wing and a moderate wing. Republican moderates worked with their Democratic counterparts on issues ranging from civil rights to tax reform. But no more. The party’s more moderate, establishment leaders like Boehner fear antagonizing tea party elements, which is why immigration reform, which Boehner knows the party must do, cannot get through the House.

Establishment Republicans believe tea party activists are part of a winning GOP coalition. The tea party activists do the work, get out the vote, and rally the base. They vote in primaries, making it important for every Republican to get to the right.

Tea party-backed candidates may not be winning many primaries in 2014, but the tea party ideology has been adopted by the entire Republican Party.