May 14

As the 2014 primary season proceeds, every Tuesday supposedly brings a radical new change in the fate of the Tea Party. Last week, when Thom Tillis won the nomination to be the GOP’s Senate candidate in North Carolina, we heard that the establishment was vanquishing the extreme elements in the party. Now that Ben Sasse has won in Nebraska, with endorsements from Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz in hand, the storyline today has it that the Tea Party has gained new life.

But here’s the real story: The Tea Party’s influence isn’t dependent on any particular election. While they’re happy to have their favored candidates prevail, they can keep on losing and still be an incredibly important force in American politics.

Look at North Carolina. For starters, the very fact that the extremely conservative Thom Tillis, a diehard 47 percenter, became the “establishment” choice tells you something about the Tea Party’s continuing influence. But in order to fend off his even more right-wing challengers, Tillis had to make emphatic declarations of his conservatism.

Indeed, a poll released yesterday by robo-firm Public Policy Polling found that positions Tillis took to win the Republican nomination could hurt him in the general election, including his opposition to an increase in the minimum wage, his desire to eliminate the Department of Education, and his climate denialism. Vulnerable incumbent Senator Kay Hagan would have preferred to run against one of Tillis’ nutty opponents, but running against someone who lurched to the right in the primary is the next best thing.

Even when they lose big, the Tea Party still forces the central question in any Republican primary to be, “Which candidate is the most conservative?” In a state like Nebraska, that may seem perfectly fine, since the Republican nominee could declare that he’s an alien sent here from a distant galaxy to subjugate humanity, and as long as he had an “R” next to his name on the ballot he’d win easily. But effects can ripple out beyond the state’s borders.

Look at Virginia, where House Minority Leader Eric Cantor is getting a pesky Tea Party challenge. Even if Cantor wins easily, it’s not going to raise his enthusiasm for passing immigration reform for the good of the national party. Meanwhile, as NBC’s First Read noted this morning, both Ben Sasse and Nebraska Rep. Lee Terry (who barely won his own primary last night) had to thunder against comprehensive immigration reform — a reminder that such primaries continue to make reform still less likely, no matter who wins them.

And then there there are places like Georgia — a conservative state, to be sure, but one where likely Democratic nominee Michelle Nunn has been running even in polls against her potential opponents. Whoever wins the GOP nomination will have spent the primary running to the right, and that candidate will then have to persuade general election voters that he or she is something else entirely. And even before that happens, there’s almost certainly going to be a run-off of the top two Republican candidates, which will no doubt feature lots more running to the right, all of which will be witnessed by the state’s independent voters.

So in conservative states, the Tea Party pulls candidates to the right and thereby makes it harder for Republicans in Congress to accomplish anything on vital issues like immigration, complicating efforts to broaden the party’s appeal. In swing states, Tea Party challenges pull “establishment” candidates to the right and complicate life for them in general elections. The Tea Party could lose all these races and many more, yet still have an enormous impact and be an ongoing headache for the GOP.