Matt Bevin reaches into the breast pocket of his jacket and extracts a wrinkled, yellow piece of paper. “Fraud Alert,” it reads, in alarming, official-seeming font. “Sensitive Materials Enclosed. Please Open Immediately.”…
“This information is provided as a public service,” the notice explains. It’s an attack mailer from McConnell’s re-election campaign, dressed up to look like an official government notice and sent to thousands of GOP primary voters across Kentucky…
“It’s all made-up lies about me,” Bevin complains, his voice rising as he vents about the negative tone of the primary contest. “It’s unbelievable. It’s crap. This is how he has run his entire race. He’s attacking me for being a member of the tea party while threatening to crush these people and punch them in the nose. All of this is just absolute horse pucky.”…
After two straight election cycles in which Republicans fumbled winnable Senate races by nominating flawed conservative candidates, McConnell vowed early this year to beat back tea party-backed candidates and their supporters wherever they surfaced.
“We were able to sneak up on people in the past. There’s no sneaking up on people anymore,” said Chris Chocola, the former Indiana congressman who now heads Club for Growth. “If there’s an incumbent in a benign to helpful political environment, they’re very, very hard to beat. An incumbent in an adversarial political environment is easier but still tough to beat.”…
This year, Republican campaign committees put their members on notice at the start of the cycle. Staffers at the National Republican Congressional Committee held a series of briefings for lawmakers about how to prepare for tough primaries. On the Senate level, senior National Republican Senatorial Committee strategists held one-on-one meetings with sitting senators to emphasize the importance of working actively to lock down the party nomination.
For many Republicans accustomed to running in conservative states and House districts, the very idea of running a full-scale reelection effort was something of a novelty. But the results speak for themselves, as untested challengers have watched their political platforms disintegrate under the withering pressure of a competitive statewide campaign.
Republican infighting is far more common and more brutal than that experienced by Democrats, egged on by a constellation of rabble-rousing conservative groups who pour money into ginning up the base. These battles, it hardly needs to be said, inevitably push the nominee far to the right in ways that may alienate moderate voters. North Carolina’s Republican Senate nominee, Thom Tillis, sought to reassure primary voters of his anti-Obamacare bona fides by boasting about how he worked to prevent the state from expanding Medicare; now his Democratic opponent, Senator Kay Hagan, is attacking him for his opposition to the expansion, which is generally popular.
When McConnell’s victory was declared on Tuesday night, national conservative groups rushed to embrace McConnell. The Senate Conservatives Fund, the Madison Project, FreedomWorks, and the Tea Party Patriots all issued statements calling for unity. (Only Bevin was not on board; embittered by his rough treatment at the hands of a wily political operator, he complained about having been “lied about” and “ridiculed.”) But the question remains whether the groups will throw themselves into the effort to reelect McConnell with as much gusto as they devoted to trying to take him down. For many on the right, attacking Republicans has become the only thing they know how to do.
“Unfortunately, I think this race, like some other races this cycle, tell a different story,” Walker said. “And the story it tells is the establishment is willing to spend what is necessary to defend their people.”…
One conservative strategist, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, said years of bad press for tea-party candidates has eroded the group’s appeal to just about everybody—Republicans included. In polls this strategist has seen, with the exception of the most conservative states, a majority of GOP voters no longer identify themselves as members of the tea party. Yet many conservative challengers still insist on labeling themselves part of the tea party.
“The tea party as a brand is dead in general elections,” the operative said. “It’s on death’s door in primaries.”
In an NBC News/Marist poll earlier this month, [Mitch McConnell] was beating Matt Bevin 53–33 among Republicans who consider themselves tea partiers. A Bluegrass poll had him ahead of Bevin 58–35 among conservative voters.
So did the Tea Party lose last night? Some tea-party groups did. Looking at the Tea Party as a bottom-up phenomenon, though, it looks like tea partiers got the candidate they wanted.
“I’m probably considered to be from the tea party, but I supported Sen. McConnell because I like, you know, that he’s a conservative,” Paul told reporters Wednesday in the Capitol. “I don’t know that that’s a defeat of the tea party necessarily when he wins. I think he stands for conservative principles, and him winning is consistent with the tea party.”
“It’s not always, I think, as clear cut who is — since the tea party has no membership,” Paul continued. “It’s sort of like everybody — or a lot of people — say they’re in it, some people say they’re not.”
Throughout the early part of this year, there has been one political narrative above all others: tea party vs. Republican establishment, or a Republican Party at war with itself. It is both a real and a flawed concept, as the first rounds of primaries have demonstrated.
Real because there are important differences between hard-charging tea party conservatives who believe there is still too much business as usual, even among Republicans in Washington and the more cautious establishment types. Flawed because the Republican Party of 2014 is still more united by its deep dislike of President Obama and his policies, and by the prospect of winning control of the Senate in the fall, than by those differences…
[E]very establishment figure in the party, with rare exceptions, sees tea party activists as an essential part of a winning coalition. They need the tea party running at full strength this fall and are being careful not to do anything to push that wing of the party away.
“The tea party is a part of the Republican majority coalition at this point,” said David Winston, a GOP pollster.
[I]t is a sign that all of this talk about the tea party’s demise is a bit premature and misplaced precisely because no Republican is willing to speak ill of it. Sure, plenty of GOPers will criticize this or that self-appointed leader or spokesman, but the criticism is almost always that they are breaking faith with the true spirit of the tea parties. Unlike Democrats and Occupy Wall Street (which the MSM celebrated rather than pilloried), Republicans need to say nice things about the the tea-party movement, because the tea-party movement is very powerful within the GOP. Indeed, nearly all of these “establishment” conservatives won by coopting or embracing tea-party messages. As someone who works at a magazine that has been trying to have a similar rightward pull on Republicans for over a half-century, that doesn’t look like failure so much as remarkable success. As commented on Twitter last night, for all the talk about a GOP civil war, there’s been a whole lot more civil than war…
It was a smart and — by my lights — deeply patriotic decision not to become a third party. And it’s being vindicated. Yes, there have been some big and nasty fights. And yes there are some hard feelings. And that will continue. But that happens in politics, which ain’t beanbag.
In the beginning, the GOP establishment had grown old and fat and corrupt, and the tea party bench was full of young and talented and pure candidates. And so, when quality candidates like former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio and former Rep. and Club for Growth head Pat Toomey challenged moderate GOP candidates like then-Gov. Charlie Crist (Fla.) and then-Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) — both of whom later became Democrats — it was like picking low-hanging fruit.
But there are only so many Rubios and Toomeys (and only so many Crists and Specters). So it gets increasingly harder to replicate this success. The well of quality tea party candidates goes dry, and eventually, you’re scraping the bottom. What’s more, the early victories send a message to the old guard that they’d better clean up their act.
And so, the tea party message gets co-opted by the establishment — which, for tea party conservatives, ought to be cause for celebration; incumbents who want to survive either get religion, or get ousted.
If the tea party is having a bad year, it’s only because they are a victim of their own success.
First, Kentucky is a huge win for the Tea Party because Bevin’s defeat will greatly increase the odds that the general election race will be a referendum on Tea Party principles rather than animal cruelty. (In a campaign low point, Bevin attended a cockfight rally and later fumbled his explanation about his attendance.)
Second, the transformation of McConnell’s campaign from 2008 to 2014 shows the overwhelming persuasive and redemptive power of the Tea Party. In 2008, the Senate minority leader ran a series of ads touting his success at bringing home the bacon. In 2014, his campaign had lost that aroma. McConnell himself helped end earmarks in 2010 and recently said no to Majority Leader Harry Reid’s call to restore the disgraced practice. McConnell’s evolving message shows how the real Tea Party can co-opt and win over the GOP establishment when it sticks to its principles…
Across the country, the Tea Party is leading a great and historic corrective. It is pulling both parties not to the right but to the middle — to a place of fiscal sanity and sustainability. The Tea Party is slowly but surely reversing an 80-year trend in which a center-left governing coalition in Washington has imposed its will on a center-right country. With the Tea Party’s help, the country is pushing back and saying “enough” to D.C.’s decadence that has given us a $17 trillion debt, an economy with zero wage growth since 1989 and safety net programs that are on the verge of collapse.
In early 2010, Kate O’Beirne and I looked at detailed polling of Tea Party attitudes for the National Review. We argued that unifying the Republican Party would be easier than it was when Christian conservatives or supporters of Ross Perot joined the coalition: Unlike those earlier groups, Tea Party advocates already believed the same things that regular Republicans did. They basically were regular Republicans, just, if you will, more so.
The differences between the Tea Party and “establishment Republicans” have largely concerned style and attitude rather than program and ideology, and these are easily finessed — especially because moods change…
Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader whom self-proclaimed spokesmen for the Tea Party have loudly denounced, almost certainly won most Kentucky Republicans who consider themselves Tea Partiers in his re-election primary this week. Some of the denouncers are warning that McConnell will lose in November unless he gets his challenger’s Tea Party supporters to turn his way. Some of those supporters tell pollsters they’re so disgusted with McConnell that they’ll back his Democratic opponent. They won’t.
That’s not because the Tea Party movement is dead. It’s because the movement the pundits imagined — a bitter enemy of the existing, pretty conservative Republican Party — was never truly alive.
Sometimes it is not possible to go from a position of extreme weakness to one of great power in one fell swoop. We must realize that getting people into office who agree with us 90 percent of the time is far superior to ending up with someone who opposes you at every opportunity at the behest of their party leaders. With patience and good leadership, the 90 percenters could be moved in the right direction and would be great allies in redirecting our country toward common-sense solutions for our multitude of problems…
If a ship is about to suffer massive destruction by sailing over Niagara Falls, why devote energy to scraping the barnacles off the bottom? There will be plenty of time for that once the ship is saved. Worrying about the barnacles before reversing course detracts from critical action. Enough said.
This rationale will anger some who feel that their important issue, be it homosexual marriage, abortion, illegal immigration, or Second Amendment rights, should never be anywhere except front and center. I sympathize with those sentiments, but as a pragmatist, I realize that if conservatives continue to be fragmented over issues on which there will never be unanimous agreement, they will never get the chance to address these issues down the road. Principles are important — but so are wisdom and savvy when building consensus with people with different principles.