The GOP Establishment Won The Primary Battles, But They Let The Tea Party Win The War

Tea Party backed candidates may have lost most of the GOP primary battles, but they've won the war for control of the Republican agenda.

Elephants Fighting

The overriding theme of the 2014 primary season, which will come to an end for Republicans with today’s primary in Tennessee and the primary in Alaska to pick the person who will run against Senator Mark Begich, which is set for August 19th, has been the battle between the Tea Party and the so-called GOP “establishment.” It’s a battle that began shortly after the October 2013 government shutdown, when many of the powers-that-be in the Republican Party apparently decided that they were not going to allow Tea Party forces to dictate the tone of the party primaries in 2014, especially given their history in the past. On some level this certainly seems like it was a wise move on the part of party operatives given the events of 2010 and 2012. In those elections, candidates with strong Tea Party support and little actual political or campaign experience arguably ended up costing the GOP winnable races in states such as Delaware, Nevada, Colorado, and Missouri. Indeed, had it not been for candidates like Christine O’Donnell, Sharron Angle, and Ken Buck the GOP could have very well won a narrow majority in the Senate in the 2010 elections or at least created a situation where the Democratic majority after that election was much narrower than it ended up being. In 2012, a Tea Party challenge to Senate stalwart Richard Lugar resulted in the nomination of Richard Mourdock, who ended up running such a bad campaign in the General Election that he lost by nearly 150,000 votes on the same day that Mitt Romney won the Hoosier State by nearly 300,000 votes.  Faced with these results, and the damage that the GOP suffered in the wake of a shutdown that was forced by the pressure exerted on the House GOP by Tea Party groups and their supporters, it was only natural that Republican insiders and groups like the Chamber of Congress would decided that the time had come to challenge the Tea Party at the primary level, which they largely had not done in the previous two election cycles.

To a large degree, their strategy worked. In the Senate, establishment-backed incumbents and candidates defeated their Tea Party backed candidates in Texas, Kentucky, South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, and Mississippi. On Tuesday, we saw Senator Pat Roberts beat back Tea Party candidate Dr. Milton Wolf, today Lamar Alexander will most likely crush his Tea Party opponents in Tennessee, and Tea Party-back Joe Miller is trailing both Mead Treadwell and Sean Sullivan in the polling for the GOP Senate nomination in Alaska. To the extent that the Tea Party has seen some success, it has been at the House level, where we’ve seen Tea Party back candidates defeat former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Congressman Ralph Hall, who is presently the longest serving Republican member of the House of Representatives and Justin Amash beat back a well-financed challenge from Brian Ellis in Michigan’s 3rd District.

Based on this, the logical conclusion would seem to be that that establishment has won the battle with the Tea Party and, judging solely by the number of elections won and lost, I suppose that is an accurate assessment. As Ed Kilgore noted the other day at Talking Points Memo, however, the reality is that the Tea Party has already won regardless of how the primary elections turn out:

But despite the losing record of the tea folk in Senate primary battles, it’s apparent they are winning the war with the Republican establishment by pushing the entire party even further to the right. Yesterday’s winner Pat Roberts, who already sported lifetime ratings of 86 percent from both the American Conservative Union and Americans for Prosperity, went far out of his way to propitiate the ideological gods of movement conservatism as he fought for reelection. He voted against an appropriations measure that included a project he had long sought for his alma mater, Kansas State University, and opposed a UN Treaty banning discrimination against people with disabilities over the objections of his revered Kansas Senate predecessors Bob Dole and Nancy Kassebaum.

We’ve seen the same dynamic with “establishment” winners Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Joni Ernst of Iowa, and “moderate outsider” David Perdue of Georgia — and above all Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, whose voting record tilted hard right in anticipation of his primary fight with Matt Bevin. There’s been a virtual cavalcade in the primaries of entire fields tilting against debt limit increases, comprehensive immigration reform (or even limited legalization of undocumented workers), any positive government role in economic policy, and of course, any accommodations for legalized abortion or same-sex marriage.

Still, one might argue, Republicans have at least avoided the curse of disastrous, gaffe-a-rific Senate candidates this cycle; there are no Christine O’Donnells or Sharron Angles or Richard Mourdocks or Todd Akins to spoil their general election prospects, right? Well, perhaps. But that remains to be seen. In competitive contests, David Perdue and Joni Ernst have shown signs of being gaffe-prone. Thom Tillis is having to deal with his stewardship of a very unpopular and highly ideological GOP-controlled state legislature. The sudden rightward GOP lurch on immigration policy is threatening to Colorado’s Cory Gardner, who felt constrained to vote against the bill deauthorizing DACA. And for all his advantages, Mitch McConnell remains vulnerable to the twin threats of abysmal approval ratings for both Congress and for the party he leads in the Senate.

In weighing the direction of the GOP, it’s also important to note what’s been happening in the real world of congressional action, and the future world of jockeying for the 2016 presidential nomination. In the last week, what was the most important intra-party development? A right-leaning Pat Roberts beating a damaged Tea Party opponent? Or the fiery nativist Rep. Steve King shaping a crucial House immigration bill and then going home to Iowa to accept tributes from 2016 presidential prospects (sometimes to their obvious peril)?

Paul Waldman makes a similar argument:

The Tea Party wins when it wins, and it wins when it loses. Five years after it began and long after many people (myself included) thought it would fade away, it continues to hold the GOP in its grip. For a bunch of nincompoops prancing around in tricorner hats, it’s quite a remarkable achievement.

Republican incumbents found a variety of ways to overcome Tea Party challenges this year. Roberts did it with some old-fashioned opposition research — if his opponent, a radiologist, hadn’t posted gruesome X-rays of his patients on Facebook, he might well be on his way to the Senate. Lindsey Graham got conservative primary voters to look past some occasional moderation by going on TV every day to enact a kabuki of outrage at Barack Obama’s alleged betrayal of America on Benghazi, Syria, and whatever else he could think of. Thad Cochran expanded the electorate, exploiting a quirk in Mississippi election law that allowed him to convince Democrats to vote in his runoff.

The only one who didn’t succeed was Cantor, and that was largely because he ignored the threat until it was too late. But just about every time, what the incumbent had to do in order to win ended up strengthening the Tea Party, usually because it involved moving to the right (at least rhetorically, if not substantively) to survive. Even Cochran could end up helping them in the end, by convincing them that the only way they can be beaten is through sneakiness and ideological treason. Tea Partiers now look at Mississippi and see only a reason to keep up the fight.

That’s the magic of an insurgent movement like the Tea Party. A win strengthens it by showing its members that victories are possible if they fight hard enough. And because the movement has organized itself around the idea of establishment Republican betrayal, its losses only further prove that it’s doing the right thing. Furthermore, if ordinary Republicans have to become Tea Partiers to beat Tea Partiers (even if only for a while), the movement’s influence is greater, not less.

Kilgore and Waldman are largely correct. To the extent that the Republican “establishment” has won its battle this year against the Tea Party, it has done so because the candidates it backed ran better, smarter, better financed and better organized campaigns than their opponents. While there was plenty of rhetoric about candidates like Mitch McConnell, Thad Cochran, and Pat Roberts not being conservative enough from the Tea Party groups that opposed them, the reality is that the Republican Party has moved so much to the right at this point that it’s hard to tell the difference between “regular” Republicans and the Tea Party crowd. You can see evidence of this in how the GOP has governed since it won the House of Representatives in 2010. There have been numerous showdowns with the President over the budget, once of which resulted in a government shutdown because the Tea Party insisted on a completely impossible to achieve “defund” Obamacare plan. The House has voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act in whole or in part nearly sixty times over the past three and a half years. Despite the fact that many in leadership, and indeed many “regular” Republicans know that it is a good idea for the country and the party, immigration reform has died in the House for fear of offending the Tea Party base. Last week, the House passed a bill that would repeal administrative regulations that granted temporary amnesty to people who were brought to the United States illegally by their parents when they were children, for no good reason other than the fact that its something the Tea Party base wants. And, of course, the House of Representatives will soon be filing a completely pointless, and likely meritless, lawsuit against President Obama that is quite obviously designed to placate a base that has been talking about impeaching the President virtually since the day he took the oath of office. If these are not signs that the Tea Party has won, then I don’t know what would be.

This poses serious problems for the Republican Party, of course, given the fact that public opinion polls show that on a whole range of issues, the Tea Party is completely out of step with the majority of the American people. In the end, though, the party establishment has nobody to blame but itself. They failed long ago to provide any kind of credible alternative to the harshest, most extreme voices in their party, and now those voices are the voice of the party. The consequences they suffer will be their own fault.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Stonetools says:

    Amen. Nailed it in one. Nothing more to add.
    Wow, I agree completely with Doug. Maybe we are in the end times….

  2. Tillman says:

    You tend to lose when in order to defeat your enemy, you must become your enemy.

  3. JohnMcC says:

    Very well said, sir!! Very well said, indeed.

  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Just one minor quibble Doug:

    The consequences they suffer will be their own fault.

    WE will suffer the consequences, all of us. And when it all comes crashing down around their ears and they are screaming about gov’t meddling in their Medicare and SS, they will blame Obama,

  5. Eric Florack says:

    The Tea Party won the war?
    I doubt that.
    Without the election holding their feet to the fire, big government Republicans will have no need to heed the majority of the party.

    And, no good reason?
    So, rule of law isn’t a good reason?

  6. JKB says:

    @Tillman: You tend to lose when in order to defeat your enemy, you must become your enemy.

    Keep that in mind when the Democratic Party goes “Tea Party” in hopes of winning in 2016.

  7. Tillman says:

    @JKB: Is that the new meme? There’s a brewing anti-Tea Party in the left? I thought OWS collapsed as a movement years ago.

    And haven’t you been paying attention to superdestroyer? “Hopes” of winning? It’s a one-party state, dude, keep up.