The dominant primary narrative for 2014, that the sensible, pragmatic Republican establishment was putting the “constitutional conservative”/Tea Party extremists back in their place, has somehow survived less than impressive establishment wins in Texas and North Carolina. At some point, the narrative may need to change, beginning with Tuesday’s results from West Virginia and Nebraska, where the establishment is again struggling.
In the one major contested primary in West Virginia, for the House seat currently held by Senate candidate Shelley Moore Capito, a carpetbagger from Maryland (he was once state GOP chairman in Maryland, but says he needed to move from that sinful secular socialist Blue State to secure “freedom”), Alex Mooney, won a comfortable victory over a field of six other GOP candidates. He was endorsed by the Senate Conservatives Fund, the Tea Party Express, the Madison Project, and Citizens United — all the ideological heavies. He’ll face Democrat Don Casey — another state party chair, but from West Virginia — in November.
Across the country in Nebraska, the marquee Senate race featured Republican establishment candidate and former state Treasurer Shane Osborn against college president Ben Sasse, with self-funding banker (and alleged “moderate,” as the other candidates hastened to accuse him of being) Sid Dinsdale. Sasse was endorsed by nearly every Tea Party and ideologically right-wing group in sight, including the Senate Conservatives Fund, FreedomWorks, and the Tea Party Express, plus Sarah Palin and Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Mike Lee (R-UT). Osborn was backed avidly by Mitch McConnell (R-KY). Sasse romped past Osborn by better than a two-to-one margin, as the establishment candidate finished third, narrowly behind Dinsdale. Sasse will face Democrat Dave Domina in November.
As Osborn’s sinking fortunes became obvious in the run-up to the primary, some elements of the Republican establishment tried to disclaim him or dismiss the contest as no big deal (just yesterday, Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin noted the two main candidates had similar positions — which you could have also said about the North Carolina Senate contenders a week ago, in a primary trumpeted across the land as a huge establishment victory — and dismissed the race as “irrelevant”). But it’s hard to avoid the impression that the spin would have been very different if Mitch’s boy had, as was originally expected in this race, beaten the Tea Party insurgents.
In the Nebraska Republican gubernatorial primary, establishment fixture and Attorney General Jon Bruning conceded defeat late Tuesday, losing for the second time in back-to-back cycles to Tea Partyish elements of the Ricketts family of AmeriTrade and Chicago Cubs fame. Two years ago Joe Ricketts lavishly financed a Senate race by unknown candidate Deb Fischer, who beat Bruning with a last-minute surge. This time around, Ricketts’ own son Pete challenged Bruning for governor, and narrowly defeated him. The gubernatorial Ricketts was endorsed by Palin, Cruz, Mike Pence (R-IN), Scott Walker (R-WI) and other conservative luminaries who presumably would enjoy access to some of Pete Ricketts’ cash at some point in the future. Chuck Hassebrook was unopposed for the Democratic nomination.
A final indignity to the Republican establishment in Nebraska, though not a definitive one, was the close shave experienced by Rep. Lee Terry, who barely got by “constitutional conservative” challenger Dan Frei.
All in all, last night definitely represented a hiccup for the “Year of the Republican Establishment” narrative. I’m guessing the Powers That Be in the GOP and the mainstream media will emulate Rubin by dismissing the results and focusing their attention on next week’s primaries, when the establishment is expected to do better in Idaho (Rep. Mike Simpson appears likely to hold off a right-wing challenger), Kentucky (Mitch McConnell has bludgeoned Matt Bevin into submission), and perhaps Georgia (“outsider” businessman David Perdue and career appropriator Rep. Jack Kingston are leading most polls and could be headed to a runoff).
At some point the pro-establishment narrative is going to have to come to grips with the fact that in almost every case the establishment champion has had to run hard right to survive, making victories when they happen mostly symbolic. But after Tuesday, just winning would be helpful.