So much for the tea party comeback. After Tuesday’s across-the-board defeats of tea party-aligned candidates and the inside-the-Beltway groups that backed them, Rep. Eric Cantor’s defeat looks more like what we believed it to be — an aberration based on one congressman’s relationship with his constituents. An inventory of the tea party wreckage suffices to show that when groups such as the Senate Conservatives Fund or Club for Growth Action back a challenger, the smart bet is to go with the incumbent.
In Mississippi, Sen. Thad Cochran (R) got his act together in the nick of time to narrowly beat tea party favorite Chris McDaniel, who ungraciously refused to concede. As Politico reported, “Club for Growth Action spent $3.1 million and Senate Conservatives Action Fund spent $1.3 million boosting McDaniel.”
In Oklahoma, it was a drubbing. Two-term Rep. James Lankford (R) demolished T.W. Shannon, who was backed by a fleet of tea party groups and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), by more than 25 points. Lankford avoided a runoff and will almost certainly win the seat in November. It was a rare and clear rebuke to Cruz in friendly territory.
The inside-the-Beltway gang has failed to dislodge a single incumbent Republican, despite millions of dollars and months of high-decibel campaigning. According to OpenSecrets.org, FreedomWorks spent $1.3 million this cycle (including more than $360,000 on McDaniel). Club for Growth Action spent nearly $5.4 million of its donors’ money.
When tea party groups chipped in to help candidates already heavily backed by mainstream groups such as the Chamber of Commerce or American Crossroads, they were able to put some wins in their column (e.g. Joni Ernst in Iowa). But if the exercise was to throw incumbents into a panic and get them to adopt the far right’s demand list, they failed miserably. (Remember that none of these groups spent a dime or otherwise contributed to Cantor’s defeat in Virginia.)
Meanwhile, the anti-immigration gang got a swift rebuke when Tom Tancredo, the ultimate anti-immigration reform candidate, lost to former Rep. Bob Beauprez (R-Colo.) in the Colorado GOP primary for governor. As he had so many times this primary season, Mitt Romney backed the winner. Attacking immigrants with inflammatory language and opposing any immigration reform bill turned out not to be the recipe for success in Colorado.
Even in House races, mainstream Republicans had a solid night. In the 22nd Congressional District race in New York. incumbent Richard Hanna beat his tea party challenger by six points. It is noteworthy that Hanna stressed his support for gay marriage and received ample backing from investor Paul Singer’s Republican pro-gay marriage group American Unity PAC. In New York’s 21st Congressional District race, strong-on-defense conservative Elise Stefanik, a former aide to President George W. Bush, won her primary by more than 20 points with the backing of American Crossroads and, again, Paul Singer.
After Tuesday’s results, there does not appear to be a single incumbent Republican who is in real danger of losing in November. That is the good news for the GOP. The better news is that diverse, mainstream and tolerant candidates have a place in the party.
WINNERS: The “establishment,” diversity in the GOP, gay marriage, immigration reform, good candidate selection.
LOSERS: The tea party, anti-immigration rhetoric, extreme rhetoric, talk show hosts.