House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) sought to erase suggestions Tuesday of an ongoing divide between traditional Republican Party members and tea party-backed insurgent candidates as voters head to the polls to cast ballots in several states with contested GOP primaries. "I think the tea party has brought great energy to our political process," he said in response to a question about Tuesday's primaries, adding that he expects many Republican candidates will continue to adopt the tea party mantle in the future. But he disputed suggestions of a rift between traditional Republicans and upstart tea party-backed candidates. "There's not that big a difference between what you call the tea party and your average conservative Republican," he said.
It was a big day for 2014 primaries yesterday, with Democratic and Republican voters in Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, Oregon, and Pennsylvania all weighing in. And as the dust settles and the political establishment comes to terms with the results, the headlines happen to be true.
"Night of Victories for G.O.P. Establishment," one says. "Republicans keep tea party wing at bay," says another. "Republican establishment chalks up wins in primaries," says a third.
The conventional wisdom, in this case, is on solid ground: Tea Party challengers, after faring very well in 2010 and 2012 in GOP primaries, largely came up short in yesterday's contests in six states, just as they did two weeks ago when North Carolina, Indiana, and Ohio held primaries.
But arguably the most important quote of the election season to date came yesterday morning from the nation's highest ranking Republican lawmaker.
Yes, exactly, and therein lies the point: Republican incumbents and their party establishment continue to fare quite well in 2014 primaries, but Tea Partiers can take solace in knowing they've already moved the GOP so far to the right that the larger conservative mission has already succeeded.
When voters see that the Republican establishment is beating back challengers, they might be left with the impression that the GOP is moderating, stepping away from the far-right cliff and shifting closer to the American mainstream.
But that would miss the forest for the tress
As we talked about after 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.
But in 2014, the line between the Tea Partiers' preferred candidates and the establishment's preferred candidates has blurred. Republican primary voters weren't asked to choose between moderates and conservatives; they were given a choice between far-right candidates and very far-right candidates.
Clearly, it's easy to see the pattern in the primary results so far this year: incumbents and establishment-backed open-seat candidates are prevailing. Yesterday, we saw this with Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, Mike Simpson in Idaho, Bill Shuster in Pennsylvania, and arguably even David Perdue in Georgia. (In Georgia's GOP Senate primary, the candidate widely perceived as electable was the same candidate endorsed by Herman Cain.)
But when looking for notable policy differences between these victors and their even-more-conservative rivals, there's just not much to see.
FreedomWorks and Club for Growth keep endorsing primary candidates, and so far in 2014, they keep losing. The consolation prize, however, is a group of Republican officeholders and establishment-backed candidates who tend to agree with the right-wing groups' policy preferences anyway.
To reiterate a point from earlier this month, extremists may feel frustrated, but they're losing battles after already having won the war -- the already conservative Republican Party has moved even further to the right, with the establishment candidates lining up quite nicely on the ideological scale with the more radical candidates of the very recent past.