Last night’s Kansas primary was generally regarded by the punditocracy as the last, best chance for a tea party upset of a Republican establishment Senate candidate (yes, Lamar Alexander faces a challenge in Tennessee tomorrow, but few give Joe Carr more of a chance than Dave Bratt in his hopeless effort to topple Eric Cantor in June). As virtually everyone expected, Sen. Pat Roberts defeated Milton Wolf, though Wolf’s own exposed vulnerabilities made it less than a fair fight, and the final tally was a lot closer than most polls suggested.
Still, toting it all up, we’ll see abundant assessments in the MSM today that Republicans avoided the sort of Senate primary upsets that spoiled the party’s prospects in 2010 and 2012. Depending on how you look at Georgia, where the losing runoff candidate enjoyed both tea party and Chamber of Commerce backing, or at Nebraska, where both winning and losing candidates claimed “constitutional conservative” status, it’s possible to argue that the Republican establishment swept the board in 2014 Senate primaries and are now poised to roll to victory in November and enter 2016 as a newly “pragmatic” GOP. There are even two winning Republican Senators, Lindsey Graham and (presumably) Thad Cochran, who seemed to have been loud and proud in their pragmatism, though Graham offset his defense of his participation in bipartisan Senate “gangs” by going wildly right on foreign policy and general Obama-bashing, while Cochran’s campaign went cynically “rogue” in pursuing Democratic votes in a way no Republican is going to recommend for the future.
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)?
No, it’s not entirely clear Republicans are ideally positioned for Senate races in 2014, and it’s less certain the GOP can “pivot” to a successful 2016 message with a very different presidential electorate and a presidential candidate field in which the highly divisive Scott Walker (if he survives his tough reelection campaign this year) could be scored a “moderate.” The complex dynamics pushing the GOP away from the political “center” have not abated this year one whit, even if its “Establishment” has largely fought off the ideological furies by sacrificing its integrity — and perhaps its future.
Ed Kilgore is the principal blogger for Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog, Managing Editor of The Democratic Strategist, and a Senior Fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Earlier he worked for three governors and a U.S. Senator. He can be followed on Twitter at @ed_kilgore.