The inside-the-Beltway groups that affixed the tea party label to their money-making rackets lost yet another Senate race Tuesday as Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) beat Milton Wolf. Wolf, who had been slammed for posting patients’ X-rays and then mocking them, was one in a string of flaky candidates challenging mainstream Republican incumbent senators this year. Not one of them won (even though Chris McDaniel is convinced that he didn’t really lose). Millions in donors’ hard-earned money was wasted on unqualified and unelectable characters with a high incidence of personal scandal and political nuttiness.
Looking back on the 2014 primary season (with Sen. Lamar Alexander poised to beat back another tea party-type on Thursday in Tennessee), it’s clear that the D.C.-run right-wing groups have vastly overestimated their prowess and influence. The talk show hosts who cheer them on have once again demonstrated that hosting an entertaining radio show doesn’t not make one a representative of the party at large or a keen prognosticator.
There just isn’t much space to the political right of Roberts in Kansas or Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky. The only big incumbent loss, Rep. Eric Cantor’s defeat in Virginia, was a race in which the Beltway groups did not spend a dime. But in statewide races, the tea party’s ideal candidates are unelectable. When the tea party piggybacks with mainstream Republicans (such as Mitt Romney, the Chamber of Commerce, GOP governors), it can assist in electing conservatives with crossover appeal such as Ben Sasse in Nebraska or Joni Ernst in Iowa.
As we’ve observed many times, the tea party-backed candidates’ screeching tone and rotten political judgment (personified in enthusiasm for the government shutdown) were their most distinctive feature. What made them different made them unacceptable even in a GOP race.
For the GOP as a whole, the tea party era comes to a close. There will always be backbenchers and radicals in the big political parties (the Democrats have them, too, although their leaders tend to rule with an iron fist that marginalizes these characters). However, now the GOP reflects remarkable consensus on many topics: Repeal Obamacare, develop domestic energy, promote free-market policies and encourage school choice. Even on foreign policy, isolationists such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) are scrambling to readjust their views and rhetoric to escape sounding like an echo of President Obama. (Born-again internationalists’ sincerity is another matter, but it is telling that they recognize views and rhetoric acceptable just a few years ago no longer will fly.)
Differences on the right remain. There are pro-growth, pro-immigration optimists in the mold of the late Jack Kemp. There are balanced-budget, green-eyeshade types whose agenda is both simple and simplistic (cut taxes, cut spending). There are reformers such as Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) who want to improve, remodel, decentralize and reduce the federal government, and there are those who think the greatest danger we face is the National Security Agency “listening” to our phone calls. There are pro- and anti-immigration reformers, although the consensus is forming that border security first is the way to proceed.
But these are shades of red, if you will, in a party that finds remarkable unity in conservative values and themes. The challenge now is to create a 21st-century conservatism that is both attractive and effective. That’s a much more productive activity for the party and the country than wasting millions on foolish candidates who embarrass themselves and their backers.