U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) speaks to members of the media at the Capitol, Oct. 11, 2013.
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The Tea Party’s setbacks mask larger victory

In his final campaign rally before his Republican primary, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) joked with Tennessee voters about the pointlessness of asking “who’s the most conservative” candidate. The incumbent said it’s a bit like asking who’s the thinnest lineman on the University of Tennessee football team. “They’re all over 300 pounds!” Alexander said.
The point, of course, was to make clear that divisions within the Republican Party have nothing to do with moderates competing against conservatives. Rather, GOP primary voters have been asked to choose between conservative Republicans and very conservative Republicans, who differ on tactics and tone, but not policy.
For Lamar Alexander, the pitch worked, and he won his primary. The margin was hardly overwhelming – the senator ended up winning by about nine points, despite recent polls that showed him with a much larger lead – but the Tennessee Republican dispatched his Tea Party challenger and will almost certainly keep his seat in the fall.
On the surface, Tea Partiers have reason to be discouraged. They had hoped to defeat some GOP Senate incumbents this year, and as the primary season comes to close, they won exactly zero contests, and memories of their successes in 2010 and 2012 are starting to fade. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell boasted a few months ago that literally all of his party’s incumbents would prevail in their primaries, and on this, he was exactly right.
But beware of analysts who misinterpret these results. Those who see the Republican mainstream reasserting itself and the party’s far-right extremists losing their influence are focusing too much on the trees and not enough on the forest.
Jonathan Capehart flagged a valuable insight from, of all people, Herman Cain.
Herman Cain made no sense when he ran for the 2012 Republican nomination for president…. But Cain made absolute sense when he talked about the state of the tea party on Fox News yesterday.
“The tea party movement is alive and well. Now, I never expected tea party-backed candidates … to take Congress by storm,” he said. “But I think the key thing is it’s causing many of the incumbents to move more to the right relative to what the tea party message is.”
Oddly enough, that’s entirely correct. I suppose even a broken clock is right twice a day.
To revisit our discussion from May, following the last big round of primaries, when GOP incumbents and establishment-backed candidates stumbled in 2010 and 2012, some of them were actually fairly mainstream, at least by contemporary standards. When Delaware’s Mike Castle and Indiana’s Dick Lugar lost tough primary fights in their respective cycles, the Republican’s conservative base really was rejecting center-right candidates for ideologues more in line with right-wing activists and the party’s radicalized base.
But in 2014, Republicans helped inoculate themselves, not by strengthening the party establishment or broadening their appeal, but by doing the exact opposite – the party’s incumbents moved sharply to the right, taking the line between the Tea Party and the party’s mainstream and blurring it out of existence.
GOP incumbents found it easier to fend off challenges by extremists by moving so far towards the far-right cliff that their Republican opponents didn’t have much to complain about.
Congratulations, Tea Partiers. You lost every battle, but won the war before the primary season even began.