Yesterday’s primary results in Kentucky, Georgia, Oregon, and Idaho confirmed what has already become an obvious trend this year. Tea Party-backed candidates would not sweep to victory in Republican primary fights across the nation as they largely did in 2010 and 2012. That was good news for the so-called GOP establishment as well as for incumbents like Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who crushed his Tea Party challenger in a Kentucky landslide. But it is even worse news for President Obama and the Democrats. Republicans blew golden opportunities to take winnable Senate seats from vulnerable Democratic incumbents in both the last two federal elections.
The results in Kentucky as well as in Oregon where the GOP nominated its strongest possible candidate in Dr. Monica Wehby and even in Georgia, where two mainstream candidates will face off in runoff, doesn’t mean that the Republicans are a lock to get to 51 Senate seats. McConnell is in for the fight of his life with Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, Wehby faces a tough incumbent in Jeff Merkley, and whoever wins the GOP nod in Georgia will not have an easy time beating Democrat Michelle Nunn. But if Harry Reid does hang on as majority leader it won’t be because the GOP was saddled with the kind of outlier candidates like the one that was largely responsible for reelecting the Nevada senator.
It bears repeating that those in the media who are treating this as an ideological shift in which moderates have triumphed over conservatives are mistaken. Though individual groups that claimed the Tea Party banner have attempted to transform a broad grassroots movement into something with a specific address and card-carrying members (while liberals have falsely imagined it to be the function of a few large conservative donors like the Koch brothers pulling the puppet strings of political operatives), the Tea Party movement was always something far more amorphous. It began as an inchoate push across the board from conservatives who were angry about the betrayal of what they felt were the party’s principles from big government Republicans in Congress as well as about the Obama administration’s billion-dollar stimulus boondoggle and ObamaCare.
In its first bloom in 2010 and to a lesser degree in 2012 that rise led to the nomination of people like Nevada’s Sharron Angle and Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell, who had no business getting major party nods. That happened because of the perception that their opponents were somehow part of the permanent governing class that had no compunction about increasing the debt in order to keep funding a government with no limits. But what has happened in recent years is that virtually the entire Republican Party has embraced Tea Party ideology when it comes to the big issues of taxing and spending. While the liberal mainstream media has always labeled Tea Partiers as being a bunch of wild-eyed extremists who were liable to be racists as well as at war with the federal government, the reality is that most of the voters and candidates who identify with the term are simply conservatives who are tired of business as usual Republicans.
What happened on Tuesday is not a situation where mainstream Republicans bested Tea Partiers and beat them on the issues. Rather, it was that voters were faced with candidates that largely shared the same views but understandably preferred more electable Republicans to those who were unlikely to prevail in November.
Indeed, this ideological shift is noticeable even among the Democrats who are being nominated to oppose these conservatives. Candidates like Grimes and Nunn are doing everything to distance themselves from President Obama and seeking to appeal to mainstream voters. While Democrats in blue states are veering to the left, those in the rest of the country understand that they must come across as being comfortable with the basic conservatism of most Americans. That’s good politics, and if the GOP lets them get away with obscuring their dedication to failed liberal policies, the Democrats will prevail.
But after years of the media echo chamber flaying the Republicans for being in thrall to extremists, GOP primary voters have taken that issue off the table. Without it, Democrats will be hard-pressed to hold the Senate.