May 7

There are two interpretations you’ll see today of the primaries that took place in North Carolina, Indiana, and Ohio yesterday. One is that the Tea Party suffered a defeat (see here, here, or here). The other is that despite what happened at the polls, the Tea Party has already won by taking over the Republican party, even if they lost a few races (see here).

There’s truth in both, but reading all that you might be tempted to conclude that the relevant question is whether the GOP is pulling back from the ideological edge (the establishment has won), or has actually moved closer to the fringe (the Tea Party has won).

The reality, however, is that there was never any significant ideological divide between the Republican establishment and the Tea Party. The establishment just understands better than it did in 2010 or 2012 the dangers the Tea Party presents and how to handle them.

Off the top of your head, can you name a significant substantive difference on an important policy matter between the GOP establishment and the Tea Party? I’ll bet you can’t. The disagreement between them is, and has always been, tactical.

Consider Thom Tillis, the GOP’s new nominee for the Senate in North Carolina. As many have observed, Tillis was no less conservative than his primary opponents. He’s even got his own 47 percent video, in which he expresses views far more repugnant than anything Mitt Romney ever said. But that video notwithstanding, the reason Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce swooped in behind him was that they believed that, as the Speaker of the state house, Tillis was much more of an experienced politician than his opponents, and thus less likely to self-immolate on the campaign trail in an inferno of buffoonery. Ideology had nothing to do with it.

The rallying cry of establishment Republicans since 2012 has been “No more Akins,” referring to Todd Akin, the Missouri congressman who lost a Senate race in 2012 after his infamous “legitimate rape” comment. The problem with Akin and other recent failed candidates like Richard Mourdock and Sharron Angle wasn’t that they had extreme positions on issues that the Republican establishment disagreed with. It was that they were idiots — poor campaigners who inevitably said stupid things that generated media frenzies.

So today, when incumbent Republicans are threatened from the right by Tea Party challenges, they don’t react by moving right in any substantive way. Not only would it be all but impossible for most of them, it isn’t necessary to shift their positions on issues. Instead, they react with displays of attitude, amping up their pose of confrontation with Barack Obama. You say you’ll shoot Obamacare with a gun? I’ll fry it with a blowtorch! And it turns out that that kind of posturing can be enough to stave off the challenge.

Yes, there are a few underfunded groups that have been formed in the last few years with the explicit intent of pulling the GOP back to the center (all of them, for some reason, have the term “Main Street” in their names). But when they enter a race, they use the same appeals the more conservative groups do, arguing that the “mainstream” candidate they’re supporting is really the most conservative one.

Take this ad from Defending Main Street, which says its favored candidate, Rep. Mike Simpson, “voted against Obamacare 49 times…Mike Simpson has been Nancy Pelosi’s worst nightmare.” The message is that Mike Simpson is as good as any Tea Partier at shaking his fist and growing red-faced with futile outrage. Which is a victory of sorts for the Tea Party, but not a substantive one.