If, as many polls suggest, tea party candidates do poorly in the upcoming GOP Senate and House primaries, the question will be why. The explanations fall into a few categories.

FILE -This Feb. 7, 2014 file photo shows Kentucky Republican Senate candidate Matt Bevin speaking at the Spencer County GOP Lincoln Day Dinner in Fisherville, Ky. Bevin is running against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley, File)
Kentucky Republican Senate candidate Matt Bevin speaking at the Spencer County GOP Lincoln Day Dinner in Fisherville, Ky. Bevin is running against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley, File)

First, there is something to be said for professional operatives who know how to select, vet and counsel candidates. Kim Strassel notes:

The challengers aren’t bombing because of a lack of money or the “establishment,” but mainly because of some mind-boggling embarrassments. Dr. Milton Wolf, challenging Pat Roberts in Kansas, was discovered to have a penchant for posting gruesome X-ray images of dead people on Facebook. (Whoops.) Kentucky’s Matt Bevin, challenging Mitch McConnell, has been forced to explain his changed positions on the 2008 government bank bailout, and more recently his presence at a cockfighting rally. (Uh-oh.)

Chris McDaniel, a lawyer and state legislator challenging Mississippi’s Thad Cochran, spent April dealing with past comments as a radio host, including derogatory references to Mexico and “Mamacita.” He’s also fielding awkward questions about his past plaintiffs’ work, including his request that a judge blow up Mississippi’s tort reform. (Ummm.)

For people who claim GOP insiders are always being snookered by liberals or special interests, the tea party groups sure did get fooled by a lot of disreputable candidates.

Moreover, the tea party groups aren’t merely missing the blinking red lights. They are looking for the wrong things. Ideological extremism, refusal to compromise, anger at other elected officials, and anti-government fury, it turns out – who knew? – are not popular. After chaos and incompetence, gridlock and raw partisanship  voters want government to work better – not be destroyed. (Hint: Political crackpottery often goes hand-in-hand with ethical and judgment deficiencies; if you lack judgment and common sense in one area of your life, you may have problems elsewhere. The more wacky the politics, the more carefully one should examine the candidate’s character.)

In addition, the premise of these campaigns – that the incumbents are not real conservatives or have no spine – is false, and easily rebutted. Incumbent Sens. Pat Roberts, Mitch McConnell, and Thad Cochran are all pro-life, pro-Second Amendment, pro-Obamacare repeal, pro-spending discipline, pro-domestic energy development and pro-tax reform. The accusation of ideological weakness is false. And the challengers’ assumption that opposition to harebrained schemes like the shutdown makes Republicans into RINOs isn’t flying with voters.

All of this is happening within the confines of off-year GOP primaries. This is as conservative an electorate as you are going to find. Add in the fact that these are some of the reddest states, and it becomes apparent that if these candidate-types don’t win in, say, Kentucky in 2014, they will bomb in  2016 when a much broader electorate turns out in many politically diverse states.

Flaky tea party candidates wiped out in 2010 and 2012, in some cases costing the GOP seats. The proposition has been tested again and again with no success. A strident tea party candidate without mainstream appeal with lose in the vast majority of states. Note also how many rightwing blogs and talk show hosts backed these people. Are they in touch with GOP voters or America at large? Obviously not. (Remember, this crowd also cheered on the inane, hugely unpopular government shutdown.) This has happened now in three consecutive elections.

The tea party has tried to redefine what “conservative” means. For them, fiery rhetoric, maximalist positions, aversion to compromise, paranoia about government and vilification of good governance make one conservative. The mainstream GOP candidates and voters are saying “Not so fast.” They know conservatives as happy warriors, great compromisers, prudent spenders and constructive reformers – Ronald Reagan, President George W. Bush, and thirty GOP governors, for instance.

How did “extremism in the defense of liberty . . . [and] moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!” work out in 1964? Barry Goldwater lost the popular vote by a margin of 61 to 38 percent. LBJ got 486 electoral votes. The Democrats won a 2/3 majority in the Senate and picked up 36 House seats. Any Republicans up for that result in 2o16?

If they’d go back to finding experienced, likable and braodly popiular candidates who are plenty conservative tea party groups might win some races. (Anyone think Milton Wolf is the next Marco Rubio?) That isn’t what they did this election cycle and that is why they’ll lose. Republicans should think this through and remember the lesson when 2016 rolls around. Picking flaky ideological extreme candidates will cost them the Senate and the White House. Maybe moderation is a virtue after all.

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.