With GOP Wins, The Tea Party v. Establishment Battle Moves Into The Halls Of Congress

The GOP's big wins last week seem to be just guaranteeing that this year's battle between the Tea Party and the "establishment" will continue.

Elephants Fighting

With Republican candidates ascendant across the country after last week’s elections, and new Senators like Joni Ernst, Tom Cotton, and Cory Gardner heading to Washington, you would think that the Tea Party, which has been the most energetic and vocal wing of the Republican Party for the past five years, would be celebrating. After all, even notwithstanding the fact that the leadership in both the House and the Senate will largely be compromised of what can fairly be described as more traditional “establishment” conservative Republicans and many of the candidates that it backed in primaries this year defeated by candidates backed by that “establishment,” it seems fairly clear that the Tea Party is going to have a louder voice on Capitol Hill than it had after the 2010 elections, and a larger caucus inside both the House and the Senate than they have in the past. Notwithstanding those facts, though, and perhaps reflecting the damage that the battles with the establishment during the primaries has actually done to the movement, the Tea Party groups that have the most national appeal seem to be somewhat nervous about what this new order on Capitol Hill may bring:

WASHINGTON — As most Republicans were taking a victory lap the morning after the elections, a group of conservatives huddled anxiously in a conference room not far from Capitol Hill and agreed that now is the time for confrontation, not compromise and conciliation.

Despite Republicans’ ascension to Senate control and an expanded House majority, many conservatives from the party’s activist wing fear that congressional leaders are already being too timid with President Obama.

They do not want to hear that government shutdowns are off the table or that repealing the Affordable Care Act is impossible — two things Republican leaders have said in recent days.

“If the new Republican leadership in the Senate is only talking about what they can’t do, that’s going to be very demoralizing,” said Thomas J. Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, a conservative advocacy group that convenes a regular gathering called Groundswell. Any sense of triumph at its meeting last week was fleeting.

“I think the members of the leadership need to decide what they’re willing to shut down the government over,” Mr. Fitton said.

Establishment Republicans, who had vowed to thwart the Tea Party, succeeded in electing new lawmakers who are, for the most part, less rebellious. And when the new Congress convenes in January, the Republican leaders who will take the reins will be mainly in the mold of conservatives who have tried to keep the Tea Party in check.

But they have not crushed the movement’s spirit.

Some conservatives believe that the threat of another shutdown is their strongest leverage to demand concessions on the health care law and to stop the president from carrying out immigration reform through executive order. Yet their leadership has dismissed the idea as a suicide mission that could squander the recent gains.

One thing that will prove popular among the base is a commitment by Senator Mitch McConnell, the presumptive new majority leader, to bring up a bill that would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, which he is expected to do next year.

Whether the party can reconcile more demands of its base with the will of its leadership could determine how enduring the Republican Senate majority will be. The crop of senators up for re-election in 2016 includes those elected in the first Tea Party wave of 2010. And in a sign of what is at stake, even some of them are sounding notes of compromise and caution that would have been unthinkable at the height of the right’s resurgence.

“I understand the frustrations of the conservative base; I am one of them,” said Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, one of the original class of Tea Party-inspired senators. “I also recognize reality.”

“We’re not going to pass the entire conservative agenda tomorrow. We can certainly lay it out,” Mr. Johnson added. “Let’s start with the things we can pass. Doesn’t that make more sense?”

That kind of pragmatic approach to the next two years isn’t what the Tea Party wants to hear, though, instead they want to hear about how the new GOP majority in the Senate and the enhanced majority in the House is going to push through everything that the House GOP tried to get down since the 2010 elections, but which the Democratic controlled Senate managed to block successfully time and time again. Many of these matters consisted of what Republicans contend were bills designed to create jobs and stimulate the economy, but one of the centerpieces of what the House of Representatives did over the course of the past three years, of course, were the innumerable efforts to repeal, in whole or in part, the Affordable Care Act, an effort which culminated in the October 2013 government shutdown which ended up accomplishing very little other than hurting the GOP’s image with the public and finally convincing establishment leaders in the party that they would need to be more direct in combating the Tea Party if they were going to have a chance of winning back the Senate in 2014. Now that they’ve accomplished, that, though, the Tea Party still seems to be convinced that the old strategies are still viable, because among the things at the top of the list for Tea Party groups going forward is, inevitably, another effort to repeal the PPACA. In reality, of course, any effort to do that is just as doomed to failure as it was before November 4th because, regardless of who controls Congress, President Obama is going to veto any bill that comes to his desk that purports to repeal in whole or in part the core parts of the Affordable Care Act, and the GOP does not have the votes in either chamber of Congress to override a veto. If that’s what the centerpiece of the GOP agenda going forward is going to be, then it will be as pointless as the nearly 60 times that the House voted to do the same thing in the years since John Boehner took the Speaker’s gavel from Nancy Pelosi.

Health care, though, is just one area where we’re likely to see leadership in the House and Senate butt heads not only with Senators like Ted Cruz, who at this point seems to be clearly using his Senate seat to set up a run for the Presidency in 2016, and outside groups like FreedomWorks, Senate Conservatives Fund, and the Club Growth that many establishment conservatives have taken to dismissing as part of a “purity for profit” movement that exists primarily  to raise money via donations from the Tea Party and hard core conservative base rather than elect Republicans to office, an assertion that seems to be supported by the idea that these groups seem to spend more money campaigning against Republicans in primaries than they do campaigning against Democrats in General Election campaigns. Leadership is also likely to face pressure from the right on everything from immigration, to opening yet more investigations of the Obama Administration on everything from Benghazi and Fast & Furious, to the IRS targeting scandal and whatever else it is that can be dreamed up to be a scandal worthy of endless hearings in front of committees of Congressmen and Senators eager to get their 15 minutes of C-Span fame. On the more extreme level, one also shouldn’t discount the possibility of pressure for the House to pursue impeachment inquiries against the President, especially as it becomes apparent that the lawsuit that the House Leadership seems intent on pursuing, which may or may not be joined by the Senate, is an utterly pointless waste of time that will do nothing but chew up attorney time and judicial resources over the next two years.

To a large degree, of course, the fact that the Tea Party was so unsuccessful at pushing its candidates in the primaries this year is likely to give the leadership in both chambers much more breathing room to work with than they have had in the years since the 2010 elections. This especially true in the Senate where Mitch McConnell will have many procedural devices at his disposal to limit the ability of Senators like Ted Cruz to cause mischief going forward, not to mention a continuing alliance with fellow Kentucky Senator Rand Paul that will likely keep that powerful voice inside the Tea Party caucus little reason to join his colleague from Texas in tossing rhetoric bombs from the back of the Senate chamber, All of that notwithstanding, though, it seems clear that the battles between the Tea Party and the “establishment” that we saw during the primaries, which were perhaps epitomized best by the contests in Kentucky and the bizarre denouement in Mississippi, will simply now move inside the halls of Congress. How that impacts what the GOP will be able to get done going forward remains to be seen.

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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. michael reynolds says:

    The battle comes down to Rush Limbaugh and Roger Ailes. Limbaugh will essentially back the Tea Party because his stock-in-trade is rage. But he’ll keep an eye out for opportunities to soften that on some issues.

    The big question is Ailes. He yanked Glen Beck off the air when Beck started to go Full Batsh!t, so he senses that there are limits to how far he can walk into crazy town. He’s not an issues guy, he’s a power guy, so my guess is he’ll come down on the side of the slightly-less-insane branch of Republicanism.

    Both men need someone to hate on, so that will shift away from the Black Guy and onto the White Woman, Hillary Clinton. Ailes will actually want her to lose, Limbaugh will want her to win, unless he’s ready to retire. The interesting question is whether Limbaugh has now effectively been marginalized by Ailes. Can Rush set his own agenda even if it means defying Ailes?

  2. stonetools says:

    Norm Ornstein rejects the Tea Party vs Establishment Narrative so wholeheartedly adopted by the media:

    The most common press narrative for elections this year is to contrast them with the 2010 and 2012 campaigns. Back then, the GOP “establishment” lost control of its nominating process, ended up with a group of extreme Senate candidates who said wacky things—Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock, Sharron Angle—and snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in races that should have been slam dunks. Now the opposite has happened: The establishment has fought back and won, vanquishing the Tea Party and picking top-flight candidates who are disciplined and mainstream, dramatically unlike Akin and Angle….

    Of course, this does not mean that the press has a Republican bias, any more than it had an inherent Democratic bias in 2012 when Akin, Angle, and Mourdock led the coverage. What it suggests is how deeply the eagerness to pick a narrative and stick with it, and to resist stories that contradict the narrative, is embedded in the culture of campaign journalism. The alternative theory, that the Republican establishment won by surrendering its ground to its more ideologically extreme faction, picking candidates who are folksy and have great resumes but whose issue stances are much the same as their radical Tea Party rivals, goes mostly ignored.

    I’m on Team Ornstein here.I think Ted Cruz got some significant reinforcements and they will push a lot for “extremist” positions like using budget measures to repeal Obamacare. And why not? Mitch MConnell ran on repealing Obamacare “root and branch”. If you are using such rhetoric, trhen it’s hard to push back against using “any means neccessary” to repeal Obamacare. And if you are so intent on “repealing Obamacare,” why not push for a measure to end the “legalized murder” they call abortion?
    Also too, I can’t wait to hear Tom Cotton on immigration-the Cotton who said,

    Groups like the Islamic State collaborate with drug cartels in Mexico who have clearly shown they’re willing to expand outside the drug trade into human trafficking and potentially even terrorism. They could infiltrate our defenseless border and attack us right here in places like Arkansas.”

    Tea Party vs establishment battle? More like surrender.

  3. al-Ameda says:


    I’m on Team Ornstein here.I think Ted Cruz got some significant reinforcements and they will push a lot for “extremist” positions like using budget measures to repeal Obamacare. And why not? Mitch MConnell ran on repealing Obamacare “root and branch”. If you are using such rhetoric, trhen it’s hard to push back against using “any means neccessary” to repeal Obamacare. And if you are so intent on “repealing Obamacare,” why not push for a measure to end the “legalized murder” they call abortion?

    I hope that both McConnell and Boehner have their hands full with their fellow know-nothings that now run our Congress. I believe that they will be pushing a lot of ready-to-be-vetoed bills up to the president.

  4. Gustopher says:


    Tea Party vs establishment battle? More like surrender.

    I think that is entirely true of the new Republican congress-critters, but the old timers are still very much establishment folks. They will say a few insane things for their base, but they aren’t true believers. There are a lot of Republicans in congress who have stayed there for ages through the power of incumbency.

    I’m picturing the McCain-Palin dynamic throughout congress. Upstarts trying to take charge and set the agenda, the old folks desperately trying to reign them in… Oh, it will be lovely (except for everyone who needs a functional congress)

  5. Tillman says:

    Looming civil war for the GOP. That’s been the post and article title on plenty of speculative tracts about GOP interior conflict. They never seem to mention that it’s been going on for some time now, and is not some distant event to come.

  6. Todd says:

    As someone who may miss a few paycheck if/when this thing comes to a head, I’m not quite as eager as some of you to sit back and grab the popcorn.

    I think the next two years are going to be very much like what we’ve seen from the House for the past 4. Mitch McConnell and John Boehner will want to try to find some areas where they can pass legislation that the President will sign. But just like in the previous negotiations, they (especially Boehner) will not be able to deliver the votes for any promises that might be made. We’re going to go right to the brink again on debt ceilings and budgets … they’ll (again) eventually need Democrats to pass … which will drive Conservatives nuts. The first bill they pass that the President actually signs, the folks at Red State will already be calling to replace the “liberals” McConnell and Boehner.