The Tea Party Is Losing Battles But Winning The War

Tea party challenger Milton Wolf, left, confronts U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, right, during a walking tour of downtown Emporia on Wednesday, July 30,2 014, interrupting the Roberts’s campaign stop to call attention to h... Tea party challenger Milton Wolf, left, confronts U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, right, during a walking tour of downtown Emporia on Wednesday, July 30,2 014, interrupting the Roberts’s campaign stop to call attention to his refusal to have debates ahead of the Republican primary in Kansas. Roberts remains favored to win the Aug. 5 election and a fourth, six-year term in the November general election, but Wolf, a Leawood radiologist, contends he’s closing the gap between them.(AP Photo/Emporia Gazette, Dustin Michelson) MORE LESS
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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.

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  1. They may be winning the internal war. But bit by bit, people are starting to wise up to these itinerant jackasses. The overall results in Kansas (not just for Roberts, but for Brownback and Hueslkamp) were not fantastic. And if the REAL hardline TPers go indie or write-in, that’s an opening the Dems can run through.

  2. This is an excellent piece, Ed Kilgore. I have been saying something similar for awhile now. Just because TP candidates aren’t winning doesn’t mean the TP isn’t winning. They’ve so successfully struck fear into the hearts of the GOP establishment that now the establishment is as far right as the TP. Would many progressives really care very much if Joe Manchin made a strong, permanent shift to the left or if he were replaced by someone strongly to the left? I certainly wouldn’t give a damn. So, whether it’s McConnell or Roberts or Graham, TPers overall are going to be pretty satisfied. At the end of the day, they’re still getting exactly what they wanted.

    I happen to think it’s more dangerous for the establishment to have moved so far right than a bunch of newbies coming in with TP cred. Long serving members of Congress like McConnell or McCain making rightward shifts is far more damaging because they’re known quantities. They’re the people most associated with the R Party and they’re the ones with some of the highest profiles. Some congressman from some backwater Louisiana town being an ass isn’t particularly noteworthy but when it’s Republican leadership it signals to moderates, indies and Democrats that the entire party has gone to shit.

  3. I wish the democratic party would start kicking out the incumbents who voted for the financial bailout - which mainly foreclosed on the middleclass and poor and subsidized the rich thru a recession. by the way, no minority should ever vote for chuck schumer, he is why income inequality exist

  4. Roberts didn’t run an ideological race. It wasn’t establishment vs tea party insurgency the way Wolf wanted it. Instead Roberts ran a tactical race. Wolf didn’t help himself. There is no excuse for his breaches of patient/physician trust, even if the patients were dead. Wolf is a deeply troubled and profoundly unethical physician who might lose his license. After Roberts got through with him everybody knew it. In the end it was closer than I thought possible. Roberts isn’t as strong as he thought.

  5. Way to intentionally miss the point.
    How’ bout those Dodgers?

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