The Washington Post

The tea party lost big this primary season, but it was still a huge factor

Tea party activists attend a rally on the grounds of the Capitol in Washington. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

Since its inception five years ago, the tea party's biggest calling card has been knocking off incumbent Republicans. Sen. Lamar Alexander's (R-Tenn.) win Thursday means that, for the first time since the movement launched, it failed to knock off a single incumbent Republican senator.

But Alexander's relatively close shave — he leads Joe Carr 49.7 percent to 40.5 percent with some votes still being counted — also belies this truth about the 2014 election: The establishment won, but it wasn't easy.

In fact, of the 12 GOP Senate incumbents seeking reelection this year, one-quarter of them took less than 50 percent of the vote in their primaries: Alexander, Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and Thad Cochran (R-Miss.). (Cochran later cleared 50 percent in his primary runoff with Chris McDaniel ... when he took 51 percent.)

In addition, three other GOP senators took 60 percent or less of the vote: Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), John Cornyn (R-Tex.) and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

None of these latter trio of senators were in real danger on primary day, but it's still very rare for an incumbent to take 60 percent of the vote or less. In fact, as I noted a few months ago, historically less than 5 percent of Congress fails to clear 60 percent in their primaries. For GOP Senate incumbents this year, it was 50 percent.


(Caveats: There is still one non-competitive incumbent primary left: Wyoming Sen. Mike Enzi. And McConnell technically took 60.2 percent of the vote, but for the purposes of this exercise, we're rounding him to 60 percent.)

The six men listed above have served a combined 120 years in the Senate, and basically none of them has faced a serious primary challenge as an incumbent. They all won, and most did so relatively comfortably — which has got to be hugely encouraging for Republican establishment efforts to beat back the increasingly antagonistic tea party.

But to suggest the tea party didn't get any traction this primary season would be a gross oversimplification.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.

The Freddie Gray case

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Campaign 2016 Email Updates

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Get Zika news by email

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!
Show Comments
The South Carolina GOP primary and the Nevada Democratic caucuses are next on Feb. 20. Get caught up on the race.
Past South Carolina GOP primary winners
South Carolina polling averages
Donald Trump leads in the first state in the South to vote, where he faces rivals Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.
South Carolina polling averages
The S.C. Democratic primary is Feb. 27. Clinton has a significant lead in the state, whose primary falls one week after the party's Nevada caucuses.
62% 33%
We'll have half a million voters in South Carolina. I can shake a lot of hands, but I can't shake that many.
Sen. Marco Rubio, speaking to a group of reporters about his strategy to regain support after a poor performance in the last debate
Fact Checker
Sanders’s claim that Clinton objected to meeting with ‘our enemies’
Sanders said that Clinton was critical of Obama in 2008 for suggesting meeting with Iran. In fact, Clinton and Obama differed over whether to set preconditions, not about meeting with enemies. Once in office, Obama followed the course suggested by Clinton, abandoning an earlier position as unrealistic.
Pinocchio Pinocchio Pinocchio
The complicated upcoming voting schedule
Feb. 20

Democrats caucus in Nevada; Republicans hold a primary in South Carolina.

Feb. 23

Republicans caucus in Nevada.

Feb. 27

Democrats hold a primary in South Carolina.

Upcoming debates
Feb 13: GOP debate

on CBS News, in South Carolina

Feb. 25: GOP debate

on CNN, in Houston, Texas

March 3: GOP debate

on Fox News, in Detroit, Mich.

Campaign 2016
Where the race stands
Most Read



Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Close video player
Now Playing

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.