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The tea party's super Tuesday

In Kentucky and Georgia, Republicans will face off in Senate primaries billed as showdowns between the tea party and the establishment. But are they really?
David Perdue
Georgia Republican Senate candidate, David Perdue, center, talks with supporters during a campaign stop at Longstreet Cafe ahead of the state's May 20 primary election, on May 14, 2014, in Gainesville, Ga.

ATLANTA, Georgia – In a small airplane hangar outside of Atlanta, several dozen supporters gathered to hear from businessman David Perdue, the front-runner in the state’s hotly contested Republican Senate primary. But first, a word from Herman Cain.

”He is not going to become a part of the status quo establishment and he understands how to identify problems, what the problems are, and how to solve problems,” Cain told the crowd. “Because what we need most are people who are not afraid to rock the boat, solve problems, and put bold ideas on the table!"

Perdue took the stage next, standing in front of his campaign bus emblazoned with his slogan -- “Outsider” – and the image he’s hammered home in ad after ad: four infant children with his opponent’s names written on their backs. 

“Our message is real simple, y’all: If we want different results in Washington we just have to send a different type of person to Washington,” Perdue said.

Perdue has held the same consistent lead in poll after poll since he burst onto the campaign with his first “babies” ad, usually taking around 25% of the vote. Most surveys put former Secretary of State Karen Handel and Congressman Jack Kingston in a dogfight for second place, which would put them into a runoff. Congressman Phil Gingrey and Paul Broun round out the lineup in fourth and firth place. The winner will take on expected Democratic nominee Michelle Nunn, who is currently tied or leading in a number of polls testing general election matchups. 

Georgia’s primary is one of a number of closely watched GOP races on Tuesday – others include Mitch McConnell’s quest for another term in Kentucky, embattled Oregon Republican Monica Wehby’s race against State Senator Jason Conger, and in Idaho, a contest between Rep. Mike Simpson and conservative challenger Bryan Smith.

On the surface, Perdue’s Tuesday rally was an odd pairing. Cain was the defining tea party candidate of the 2012 presidential election. Perdue’s elite family connections (his cousin, former Governor Sonny Perdue was also at the rally) and reassuring tone make him the kind of safe general election bet that many establishment Republicans would love to see pay off.  

But Georgia is one of several races this cycle that beg the question of just what it means to be “tea party” or “establishment” when every candidate has impeccable conservative credentials.

Is the tea party about finding the most conservative candidate, period? Then their man is almost certainly Broun, who famously called evolution and the Big Bang “lies straight from the pit of hell,” with fellow Congressman Phil Gingrey, who’s closing his campaign with a desperate gay bashing ad, next in line. Is it the movement of scrappy anti-elitists? Then their candidate would be the underfunded blue-collar Handel, whose campaign has surged since Sarah Palin endorsed her. Is it the movement of successful businessmen who made their careers outside of Washington? Then it’s Perdue. What about leaders who’ve used their positions of power to advance conservative goals? That would be Kingston.

“The tea party label doesn’t mean a thing in a race like this!” Cain told msnbc. 

According to Cain, the emphasis lately on who is and isn’t in the tea party these days “create[s] a false impression about what they stand for.”

“Go right down the list of all the things I supported when I ran for president, David supported all of the same things,” he said.

He’s right: On the issues, the candidates in Georgia, and indeed almost all major GOP Senate races this year, are remarkably similar. In Georgia, even a 22-year veteran House member like Kingston can lay some claim to the grassroots right: He was the choice of conservative activists to take over the House Appropriations Committee thanks to his spendthrift reputation. Muddying the waters further, Perdue is also one of only two candidates in the race to say he will not support McConnell as Minority Leader (the other is Handel) while Kingston is non-committal. 

McConnell’s own primary has become 2014’s clearest symbol of tea party discontent with GOP leadership. Conservative activist groups from around the country have rallied behind businessman Matt Bevin’s insurgent campaign.

McConnell ultimately prevailed in Tuesday's contest. The Associated Press called the race for McConnell shortly after polls closed.

McConnell’s long career in Washington and penchant for backroom gamesmanship makes him the epitome of an insider. But part of the reason Bevin has failed to gain any traction in the polls is that McConnell recognized, encouraged, and co-opted the tea party movement from the start. He made a critical decision at the start of President Obama’s presidency to oppose his every goal and gum up his nominations, setting up a GOP strategy of maximum opposition that the tea party now takes for granted but was hardly a sure thing in 2009 after a Democratic landslide. When his own state elected Rand Paul as its junior senator over McConnell’s favored candidate, McConnell recognized the threat and adopted Paul as a protégé, a move that paid off with a critical endorsement against Bevin.

If David Perdue succeeds, so-called establishment Republicans will breathe easy, knowing their odds of winning a Senate majority are likely more secure. But that’s much more an issue of candidate quality than ideology. In the policy battles that count, the tea party won long ago.