There's no denying Chris Christie's big victory -- and Ken Cuccinelli's disappointing loss -- were the headline stories on Tuesday night. But if you want to see what the next year in Republican politics will look like, you might want to check out Alabama's 1st district.
There, veteran Republican Bradley Byrne narrowly defeated tea party backed Dean Young for the open seat vacated by departing Congressman Jo Bonner. Both candidates were extremely conservative. But only Young identified President Obama's birthplace as Kenya, failed to name the current Treasury Secretary, and declared "homosexuality is wrong" -- all in one brief interview.
More importantly to the business community, Young was an ardent supporter of October's government shutdown strategy and debt ceiling brinksmanship. Groups like the Chamber of Commerce poured hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash into Byrne's candidacy, hoping to keep another Ted Cruz acolyte from hurting their bottom line with avoidable economic and political crises. But even with their backing, the race was tight. Byrne, a former state lawmaker, won by just a 52-48 margin.
On its own, Alabama is not a major election. The race came down to the difference between an extremely conservative populist and an extremely conservative establishment politician in an extremely conservative district.
But it points to an election cycle in which groups like the Chamber of Commerce and the Karl Rove-tied American Crossroads are likely to take a much more active role in picking their favored Republicans early and guiding them through the primaries. And, even more importantly, take an active role in defending their incumbents from attacks that force them to the right. What happened in Alabama could happen in dozens of races around the country.
The GOP's establishment voices are already pointing to Christie's success in New Jersey -- and tea party favorite Cuccinelli's corresponding defeat against a weak Democrat -- as evidence they have the party's best electoral interests at heart. The 2016 Republican primaries are shaping up to be a referendum on which side's vision holds the most sway.
But in the meantime, you can see the next round of battles shaping up already -- especially in the Senate.
On the tea party side, groups like the Senate Conservatives Fund (SCF), founded by Jim DeMint in 2008 to identify and fund proto-tea party candidates, and Club For Growth are picking fights with sitting senators they consider too moderate.
Among them: Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the quintessential establishment senator who negotiated the deal that ended the shutdown. He's facing a challenge from local businessman Matt Bevin, who Republican strategists are worried could fall to Democratic challenger Allison Lundergrand Grimes in a general election. Bevin has assailed McConnell for ending the shutdown and told the New York Times that the debt ceiling standoff, which economists warned nearly triggered a financial metldown, was a "faux" crisis.
Then there's Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, a conservative Republican by any measure, who's facing a challenge from SCF-backed Chris McDaniel. Within days of McDaniel's announced run, Mother Jones reported that he had recently addressed a neo-Confederate conference hosted by a group that supports present-day secession.
Just as they did with Byrne, you can expect establishment groups, donors, and politicians to get involved protecting these candidates and keeping radical candiates from assuming the nomination in open House and Senate seats. After watching tea party candidates blow winnable races in Indiana and Missouri in 2012 and Colorado, Nevada, and Delaware in 2010, they don't want to risk blowing a shot at Republican Senate majority, jeopardizing the current House Majority, or sending them more Cruz-style firebrands who will drag the national party down in the presidential race.
Christie, who is rapidly consolidating his position as the establishment's favored presidential candidate, is already signalling his own interest in getting involved. According to the New York Times, he has plans to go to South Carolina to support Sen. Lindsey Graham, the longtime Republican dealmaker who faces multiple primary challenges from the right in 2014.
And it's not just in races with sitting senators that are shaping up as battlegrounds. The National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), which sat out previous primaries to avoid antagonizing tea party voters, is signalling it will take a more active role in stopping the next Todd Akin or Christine O'Donnell from ever winning the nomination.
"The path to getting a general election candidate who can win is the only thing we care about,” NRSC chair executive director Rob Collins told reporters this week.
One test might be Georgia, where Republicans are worried Democrat Michelle Nunn, daughter of the former senator, might prove a formidable candidate for the state's open seat -- if she gets the right opponent, that is. As in an opponent like Paul Broun, the Congressman who once declared evolution and the Big Bang "lies straight from the pit of Hell."