Last night’s election returns confirmed our suspicion that the MSM, conservative media, incumbent Republicans and most of all, the right-wing groups that affixed “tea party” to their money-making operations, have grossly exaggerated the strength of the tea party. The tea partiers are very loud, but even in a GOP midterm primary, conservative Republicans won’t support their brand of bomb-throwing politics. In Georgia, the two tea party-associated candidates finished at the bottom of the pack. The tea party favorites in whom third-party groups collectively invested millions of dollars lost not only in Georgia but also in the Kentucky and Oregon Senate races and the Idaho 2nd Congressional District contest.
These races were not close. Matt Bevin in Kentucky lost by 25 percentage points. Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) beat Bryan Smith by more than 20 points. Monica Wehby in Oregon also crushed her closest challenger by 13 points, as of this writing. A whole lot of money was wasted on candidates who didn’t have a ghost of a chance.
Tea party backers insisted that they had “moved” McConnell to the right. In fact, he never budged. He’s always been a pro-2nd Amendment, pro-life, pr0-defense, pro-tax cut, pro-balanced budget and pro-Obamacare repeal Republican. What he wasn’t was an irresponsible leader willing to take his conference over the cliff on stunts like the shutdown. The “tea party” persona has become entirely artificial, a pose rather than a philosophy and a rhetorical style that slashes and burns other Republicans.
The GOP electorate was in no mood to indulge the outside groups or the less-than-stable candidates the tea party groups lavished with their donors’ money. Republicans want to win the Senate and chose the electable conservative over and over again in these races. Groups such as the Senate Conservatives Fund may need to find another way of prying money out of conservatives’ hands; it’s going to be hard to persuade earnest donors to keep throwing their contributions away.
The results are revealing in a number of respects. Incumbents should recognize that a challenger endorsed by Sarah Palin and funded by the Madison Project or the Club for Growth poses no danger unless the incumbent has lost touch with his own constituents. Incumbents need not be cowed by “Heritage Action alerts” or talk show hosts’ name-calling. They do not need to buy into legislative hijinks or adopt extreme positions on immigration to keep their seats. Attacking the House or Senate leadership as “sellouts” and traitors to the cause gets you nowhere.
Third-party groups complain now that it is just so darn hard to primary an incumbent. Hmm. They might have let on before they raised millions of dollars. But, in fact, they overstate their case. The lesson instead is this: It is hard to primary from the right mainstream conservatives whose only political sin is constructive governance and aversion to tactics that will offend the great majority of Americans.
Right-wing pundits who think the tea party should break off from the GOP might want to reconsider. Without the mass of GOP support, a purist third party will get about as many votes as Bryan Smith, Matt Bevin and the other Tuesday losers. The GOP needs them, but the tea partiers need the GOP more. The GOP can move center-right to gain electoral strength; the tea party has nowhere to go to the right.
The outcome may, as we have predicted, signal the end to the “tea party” label as conservatives adopt other designations (“full spectrum” conservative) to emphasize their solidarity with the base. But this, I strongly suspect, is about more than labels. Republican voters see massive government mismanagement, international aggressors and a tepid economy; the thought of handing the reins over to bellicose ideologues with no interest in good governance probably sends shivers down the spines of many voters. They want competence and reform, not rhetoric and histrionics. They are looking for a modicum of maturity and common sense. Running as a contrarian is not a ticket to success.
The results last night make it more likely that the GOP will take the Senate. The across-the-board drubbing of extreme and flaky candidates may also send ripples into the 2016 presidential race. That’s good if you are a successful governor with widespread appeal. It’s not so good if you’ve thrown your lot in with the Senate Conservatives Fund, anti-immigration extremists, talk radio gadflies and the shutdown squad. Candidates have a year or so to make themselves presentable to a newly energized and more centrist Republican base. Those who have been out on the hustings fanning the flames of extremism had better start their course correction.