The Tea Party got shut out on Tuesday night.
In Idaho, incumbent Rep. Mike Simpson easily defeated Bryan Smith, the Club for Growth-backed challenger. In Kentucky, businessman Matt Bevin got walloped by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and the two most establishment candidates made the runoff in the Republican Senate primary in Georgia.
Ironically enough, however, last night represented a big win for the Tea Party's conservative, small government ethos, and the extent to which Tea Party ideology is now cemented into the GOP is now plain to see.
Despite not having any candidates who draped themselves in Gadsden flags win marquee races on Tuesday, the election results showed the ultimate success of the Tea Party’s effort to change the very DNA of the GOP, as the median voter in a Republican primary has become far more conservative in the past few years. The “establishment” candidates may have won—but they did so by becoming increasingly conservative.
The biggest win for the Tea Party was in Georgia, a state where outside Tea Party groups declined to endorse any candidate in the GOP primary. There, the most two establishment candidates, businessman David Perdue and Rep. Jack Kingston, beat three socially conservative opponents, Reps. Paul Broun and Phil Gingrey as well as former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel.
Handel was an underfunded quasi-perennial candidate who never attracted superPAC spending, while Broun and Gingrey were both gaffe-prone traditional social conservatives—more akin to Todd Akin, with whom they served in Congress than the new wave of Tea Party candidates since 2010. In contrast, while Kingston was a longtime member of the House Appropriations Committee, he was the appropriator that budget hawks liked. Kingston voted against Murray-Ryan, against raising the debt limit, and against ending last year’s government shutdown.
Perdue, a businessman with no prior political experience (although his cousin is the state’s former governor), used Herman Cain as his top surrogate, lambasted his opponents as career politicians and emphasized that, if elected, he wouldn’t vote for Mitch McConnell to lead the GOP caucus in the Senate. Both Kingston and Perdue are strongly opposed to comprehensive immigration reform as well. Neither one is likely to be a Mike Lee clone if elected to Senate but no one would ever confuse them with Mike Castle, the moderate Republican congressman and former governor who lost a 2010 Senate primary to Christine O’Donnell.
In Kentucky, Mitch McConnell may be the quintessential establishment Republican. McConnell, a five-term incumbent, built the modern GOP in the Bluegrass State; the very building that the Kentucky Republican Party is headquartered in is named after him. However, facing a Tea Party threat from conservatives deeply dissatisfied with the state of affairs in Washington, D.C., McConnell quickly moved to the right. He hired Jesse Benton, a longtime aide to Ron and Rand Paul, as his campaign manager and swiftly built a strategic alliance with his fellow Kentucky senator.
In McConnell’s victory speech Tuesday night, he dwelled on one of Rand Paul’s pet causes, the so-called “Freedom to Fish” law, which prevented the government from lowering water levels in a Kentucky lake in order to protect a threatened species of minnow.
McConnell’s win wasn’t just due to the backing of Rand Paul and taking steps to strengthen his conservative credentials. He also heavily outspent Bevin and went ferociously negative. It also helped that Bevin, a first-time candidate, ran a deeply flawed campaign, which culminated in a minor scandal involving speaking at a pro-cockfighting rally. McConnell didn’t shy away from pointing to the advantages that his seniority and leadership role could provide Kentucky in terms of pork either. But he did about as much as one can while serving as Senate minority leader to co-opt Tea Party support.
The biggest loss for the Tea Party was the primary in Idaho’s Second Congressional District, where Boehner ally and eight-term incumbent Rep. Mike Simpson faced a strong primary challenge from Bryan Smith, a lawyer backed by Club For Growth. With 56% of precincts reporting, Simpson was up 61%-39% against Smith, a first-time candidate who was also backed by other outside groups. Simpson and his allies were also able to outspend Smith’s backers by a margin of 6 to 1. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce alone spent $725,000 on the incumbent’s behalf there (almost as much as Smith raised in total).
Tea Partiers running against incumbents notched some other moral victories too in races that flew under the radar. In Pennsylvania’s Ninth District, underfunded challenger Art Halvorson gave incumbent Bill Shuster, a second-generation congressman and chair of the House Transportation Committee, a tougher run than many expected. In Idaho’s gubernatorial race, State Senator Russell Fulcher did surprisingly well trying to take down incumbent Butch Otter, despite a debate which resembled a carnival sideshow more than traditional discourse.
But judging election results based on which faction of the Republican Party claimed the most scalps in any given week of primary elections is shortsighted. The Tea Party didn’t take control of the GOP when Ben Sasse won the Nebraska primary last week nor has it totally cratered with McConnell’s commanding win Tuesday.
Instead, the lesson is not that the Establishment beat the Tea Party or vice versa but that the two are becoming increasingly similar. There aren’t primaries as there were two or four years ago with moderate mandarins like Mike Castle or Dick Lugar. Instead, the candidates from each wing of the Republican Party are starting to look more alike and taking positions on issues like spending, immigration and climate change that would have been considered far right wing in George Bush’s GOP. The fights between establishment candidates and Tea Party candidates increasingly bear a greater resemblance to nitpicking theological disputes than to Rockefeller vs. Goldwater in ideological magnitude . This isn’t to say that there has been a convergence and, of course, with social issues and the press and pull of pork barrel politics there never will be one. But, the gap between the two is narrowing and it is entirely because the Tea Party is successfully dragging the rest of the GOP to the right.
They may have lost a few battles last night, but what does that matter when they are well on their way to winning the war?