Tea Party's secret victory: The real 2014 GOP primary story

Look a little closer and the truth is: Tea Party voters are getting exactly what they want from this election cycle

Published May 21, 2014 4:59PM (EDT)

Tea Party supporter William Temple of Brunswick, Ga.                   (AP/David Goldman)
Tea Party supporter William Temple of Brunswick, Ga. (AP/David Goldman)

The real story out of Kentucky's GOP primary last night is not, as we've said ten million times (most recently this morning -- click!) that the "establishment" won -- that term no longer represents any specific view of politics.

Let's look at another element that blows up this "Tea Party vs. Establishment" framework, wherein the "Tea Party" would represent the more conservative, idealist wing of the party and "Establishment" the more moderate, pragmatic wing.

By this false standard, Mitch McConnell would be a stalwart Tea Partier. Huh?

National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru looks at Kentucky polling and makes the point that McConnell's victory was a victory for self-identified Tea People.

In an NBC News/Marist poll earlier this month, the Senate minority leader was beating Matt Bevin 53-33 among Republicans who consider themselves tea partiers. A Bluegrass poll had him ahead of Bevin 58-35 among conservative voters.

This dynamic holds up in polling of other well publicized primary contests, too.

In Georgia, self-funding businessman David Perdue and long-time, Chamber-backed appropriator Rep. Jack Kingston made the runoff cut last night and will square off against each other again in a couple of months. These were supposedly the two most "Establishment" candidates in the race, by virtue of their backgrounds, endorsements, and relative unlikeliness to not make crippling "gaffes" about rape during the home stretch of the general election. (In terms of policy, of course, they ran ultra-winger campaigns along with the rest of the lot.) A mid-May SurveyUSA poll that reflects last night's results found that conservatives' top two choices were... David Perdue and Rep. Jack Kingston.

In North Carolina, where Thom Tillis was supposedly the reasonable, "establishment" choice, whereas Greg Brannon was the "constitutional conservative" Tea Party crazypants guy. A PPP poll right before the election showed Tillis, the eventual winner, as the top choice of both "somewhat conservative" and "very conservative" voters. As did a late SurveyUSA poll.

If "Tea Party vs. Establishment" is supposed to represent some sort of ideological rift between "real" conservatives and insider moderate dealmaker types, then, GOP primary season would so far represent a resounding victory for the Tea Party, the crown jewel of which being Mitch McConnell's victory last night. And that doesn't sound right at all! Ergo, narrative = dumb.

But let's take a break from the semantic crankery for a bit and look at a 2014 GOP primary narrative that really is happening: GOP incumbents appear to have learned how to win. We haven't seen the sorts of major upsets that we saw in the 2010 and 2012 cycles, like the topplings of Sens. Bob Bennett or Dick Lugar. There are still some contests to go, sure. In Mississippi, Sen. Thad Cochran is fending off a challenge to his insidery-ness. But if that campaign continues the way it's been going recently, in which the challenger is being connected with the sort of lunatics who break into nursing homes to shoot videos of Cochran's bed-ridden wife, then Cochran shouldn't have a ton of trouble.

So: if the Tea Party is getting the candidates it wants, and those candidates tend to be incumbents or -- in the cases of Tillis and Perdue/Kingston, the stronger, least gaffe-y general election candidates -- then what does that tell us? Perhaps that conservatives have never had it better! They're getting the policies they want through the strongest candidates. The Democratic strategy of 2010 and 2012 of relying on the GOP to nominate gaffetastic dingbats in order to preserve their Senate majority will be more difficult this time around.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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