A major subplot of this year’s midterm elections is the competition between the Republican establishment and the tea party wing of the party. The establishment is fighting back, but has the tea party already won?
The general election is still six months off. But Tuesday opens the summer preseason of intraparty contests, which starts with an important primary in North Carolina. Between now and the end of June, more than two dozen states will hold primary elections. After a July break, the preseason will end with another round of primaries in August and early September.
The five primaries in which incumbent senators face direct challenges from tea party conservatives will be most closely watched for clues about the balance of power in the GOP. They involve Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Ky., Thad Cochran, Miss., Lindsey Graham, S.C., Pat Roberts, Kan., and Lamar Alexander, Tenn.
At this point, all the incumbents are favored to win. McConnell is first up, with a primary on May 20 against Matt Bevin. One earlier primary also involved a tea party challenge. That was in Texas, where Sen. John Cornyn easily survived.
What does this say about the tea party? One thing it may say is that it is not so easy to defeat incumbents in primaries. The reality is that incumbent senators (as well as House members) do not lose primaries very often. They have lost them less often over the past three decades than they did in the three-plus decades before that.
Rhodes Cook, an independent analyst of elections, scoped out the statistics in a recent newsletter. He found that the years between 1982 and 2012 saw fewer Senate and House incumbents defeated in primary elections than in the 34-year period from 1946 to 1980. In that first period, 38 senators and 147 House members lost primaries; since 1982, only eight senators and 74 House members have been defeated in primaries.
In House races, the most incumbent losses came in the three post-redistricting elections — 1992, 2002 and 2012 — when incumbents were sometimes pitted against one another because of newly drawn district lines.
In 2010, three senators were denied their party’s nominations: Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who went on to win reelection as a write-in candidate; Utah’s Robert Bennett, who was knocked out in a party convention; and the late Arlen Specter, who lost the Democratic Senate primary in Pennsylvania after switching parties. But in no other year between 1982 and 2012 was more than one senator been defeated in a primary.
That provides a baseline for evaluating the tea party challenges this year. There should have been no grand expectations of incumbents falling left and right to the energized tea party wing of the party. But that is not necessarily because the tea party has become a significantly diminished force.
Another reason the challengers might fall to the incumbents is the quality of the candidates. What the Republicans learned in 2010, in primaries involving their own incumbents as well as in primaries picking challengers to Democrats, is that the tea party candidates often were not ready for the prime time of a general election.
Who can forget Nevada’s Sharron Angle or Delaware’s “I-am-not-a-witch” Christine O’Donnell? Both were weak general election candidates and lost. In 2012, then-senator Richard Lugar lost his primary to conservative Richard Murdouck, who then imploded once he became the nominee.
In 2010, Ken Buck, who had tea party backing, proved not quite ready for a general election and lost the Senate race in Colorado. He decided to try again this year but was struggling. Republican Rep. Cory Gardner engineered him out of the race. The result is that, with Gardner in the mix, the Colorado election almost instantly became a toss-up race, and Sen. Mark Udall is one more vulnerable Democratic incumbent.
Some tea party candidates have emerged as genuine rising stars within the GOP, Sens. Ted Cruz, Tex., and Marco Rubio, Fla., among them, although they have followed different paths in office. Sen. Mike Lee, Utah, who knocked off Bennett, has teamed with Cruz to make endorsements this year in GOP primaries in Nebraska and Oklahoma.
The other big reason the establishment-versus-tea-party theme may be overdrawn is the degree to which the establishment has adapted to the new world by embracing tea party ideas and sometimes their confrontational posture. Slate’s David Weigel noted this in a piece about North Carolina recently. He observed that the establishment candidate in the GOP primary, state House speaker Thom Tillis, has one of the most conservative legislative records in the country.
North Carolina Republicans will pick a challenger to Sen. Kay Hagan, D, on Tuesday, and one of Tillis’s opponents, Greg Brannon, is actually considered the tea party candidate. Brannon has the endorsement of Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who is in the state Monday to campaign for him. Tillis needs to win 40 percent on Tuesday to avoid a runoff. But he is an example of how the line between establishment and tea party has blurred.
On the basis of substance, the Republican establishment has drawn few lines in the sand with the tea party. They may differ on tactics and procedures at times, and party leaders have disparaged some of the outside groups who have backed tea party challengers in primaries. But on the issues, the GOP is quite united and more conservative than it was a decade ago.
The real test of the tea party’s influence is likely to come in the 2016 Republican presidential primaries. David Axelrod has said he told President Barack Obama immediately after the 2010 midterm shellacking that there was one silver lining in what happened to the Democrats that year: He predicted that the results would push all the presidential candidates, including Mitt Romney, farther to the right in their bid to win the GOP nomination.
What will happen in 2016? It’s obviously too early to know. The answer will depend in part on how well or badly Republicans do this fall and then on how the GOP presidential contenders read those returns. Will any of the viable Republican candidates try to put distance between themselves and the tea party, or will they generally embrace the tea party movement? That question will be answered individually and collectively, and at that point, the tea party’s real standing will become clear.