Far right's misadventures: A brief history of the 2014 GOP primary season, so far

Since there are no primaries this week, let's look back on the season so far. Idiocy and dumb "narratives" for all!

Published June 18, 2014 3:18PM (EDT)

Eric Cantor, Dave Brat                (AP)
Eric Cantor, Dave Brat (AP)

Did something seem a bit... off?... to you yesterday?

For whatever reason, the usual spring-summer Tuesday stories about "What this primary means for the Tea Party" weren't popping up all over the Internet. That's because there were no primaries yesterday. The "fun" will return next Tuesday, when the Mississippi Senate runoff and an interesting Oklahoma primary, among other races, are slated.

Since we have a week off from thrilling GOP-on-GOP action, now is a fine time to reflect on the first half of what experts are either calling the most exciting GOP primary season in history, or just another primary season, or, well... something. It has definitely been some thing that has happened, yes.

Bow down before the Almighty Narrative

The hundreds of primaries among House, Senate, gubernatorial and other races are bound together by a supernatural force, first predicted by ancient mystics, called The Narrative.

Back when people were normal and got all their news by reading the local paper to see how things affected them, The Narrative was a largely undetected presence. People would read about the politicians that were vying to represent them in office, make a selection, and then read coverage of who won and who lost and what that would mean for property taxes, etc. Local political reporters would live in a region and be knowledgeable about that region and explain what was going on in that region.

But then two terrible things happened: Cable news and the Internet came into being. This meant that suddenly hundreds of reporters, aggregators, television dim bulbs and cross-platform #brands, largely based out of New York City and Washington, D.C., were required to pretend to have a working knowledge of everything going on in politics across the country so that they could then write or record "explainers" or "fresh takes" for news-hungry national audiences. Thus came into being the overriding necessity of The Narrative: a simple thread or storyline that could plausibly explain all of the action occurring in all of United States politics across a short- or medium-length period of time.

The Narrative going into the 2014 GOP primary season was "Tea Party vs. Establishment," or "GOP civil war." Oversimplified binary frameworks about dueling factions make for the best narratives.

There's some truth to the description of the struggle, but this year's edition called be more accurately whittled down to "Republicans who want what they want and want it now! vs. Republicans who just want to win the fucking Senate already." Since the Tea Party came into being at the outset of the Obama administration, the GOP has blown two opportunities to wrest control of the Senate majority from the evil clutches of Harry Reid and the Democrats. In 2010, voters (the DAMN VOTERS) threw away winnable seats in Colorado and Delaware by nominating silly people; in 2012, they did the same in Indiana and Missouri by putting forth candidates who had the freshest of fresh takes on rape. And many of the "Tea Party" candidates in both the House and Senate who did win their general elections had a shared hatred of strategic thinking. The government shut down in 2013 and the debt ceiling was nearly breached because a group of Tea Party politicians thought this would provide them the necessary leverage to get President Obama to sign a repeal of his signature health care reform law. This plan didn't work very well.

The combination of blown Senate opportunities and legislative foot-shooting finally angered a segment of the party known as the "Establishment" enough into taking the offensive in this year's primary season. Whereas previously groups like Karl Rove's American Crossroads and the Chamber of Commerce's PAC wouldn't wade into critical primaries, they, along with leadership figures like Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, decided to throw resources into races where "goofballs" threatened to capture nominations. Their main targets weren't the Tea Party rank-and-file per se, but instead major groups -- also largely based out of Washington D.C.! -- like the Club for Growth, the Senate Conservatives Fund, Heritage Action, FreedomWorks, and Tea Party Patriots that sought to (a) pluck off incumbents and perceived RINOs during primaries and (b) make even the most basic aspects of responsible governance impossible for Republicans during peacetime.

So while the billing of "Tea Party vs. Establishment" whiffs of Bud-guzzling, freedom-loving grassroots patriots vs. the Fat Cats, it's more of a proxy fight between two extremely well-funded coalitions of interest groups based out of Washington D.C. over turf and tactics.

And depending on the week, The Narrative has been either that the Tea Party is dead as the dickens or more alive than ever.

North Carolina: The Tea Party is dead.

Primary season kicked off in full in North Carolina on May 6, where state speaker Thom Tillis, who had led a hard-right conservative revolution in the state's politics over the last couple of years, somehow earned the sellout-RINO-Establishment moniker. Odd, no? As Joan Walsh described him, Tillis is "a tax-slashing, voter ID-backing, anti-choice extremist who opposes a federal minimum wage.

During the campaign, Tillis bragged about leading the charge to refuse expanded Medicaid funding and said he opposed the congressional deal that averted a debt default last October. A fervent backer of personhood legislation, he told a North Carolina paper that he agreed with Brannon that states have the power to ban contraception (back in 1967, you’ll recall, the Supreme Court disagreed.) He presided over a budget that cut the state’s education budget by half a billion dollars, eliminated North Carolina’s earned income tax credit and raised taxes on 80 percent of state residents while slashing top rates.

On the other hand... he was endorsed by the Chamber of Commerce and Karl Rove and Mitt Romney and seemed to be the most viable general election candidate, so sure, RINO. His opponents were Greg Brannon, a self-described "Constitutional Conservative" who had the backing of FreedomWorks and Rand Paul; and Mark Harris, the social conservatives' pick.

The only real drama going into primary day was whether Tillis would break the 40% threshold needed to avoid a runoff. He did. Award ten narrative points to the "Establishment," who got their way by helping to nominate one of the most conservative candidates in the country who'd been fully captured by Tea Party ideology. At least he hasn't made extraordinary gaffes or anything.

Nebraska: The Tea Party is alive!

Who was the Tea Party candidate in Nebraska's GOP Senate primary? That all depends on when you asked.

For a while it looked like it might be former state treasurer Shane Osborn? He had the support of local Tea Party groups like the Nebraska Republican Liberty Caucus, Nebraska Taxpayers for Freedom, Western Nebraska Taxpayers Association and Omaha Liberty Ladies. Among national Tea Party groups, FreedomWorks was also on his side -- until it wasn't. Not long before the race, the DC-based group switched its endorsement to Ben Sasse, a former Bush administration official. Apparently FreedomWorks hadn't noticed that Mitch McConnell also endorsed Osborn, and who wants to be associated with dirty old Mitch McConnell? FreedomWorks' VP resigned, and many of the local Tea Party groups were irritated at the D.C. Teastablishment for ditching Osborn. In any event, Sasse won, proving that the Tea Party was in better shape than ever and the Mitch McConnells of the world were doomed to an eternity of losing.

Kentucky, Georgia: The Tea Party is dead.

Mitch McConnell and the Establishment were doomed to an eternity of losing for a whole week following Nebraska's primary. Because seven days later, on May 20, Mitch McConnell won the actual race in which Mitch McConnell was a candidate. McConnell's much hyped challenger, Kentucky businessman Matt Bevin, proved to be an inept candidate, even with the backing of outside groups like the Senate Conservatives Fund. It wasn't enough to match McConnell's campaign spending, which topped $10 million.

Georgia's primary ended in a runoff, which won't be held until July. But the fact that the two most gaffe-prone dingbats running in the race -- Reps. Phil Gingrey and Paul Broun -- finished in fourth and fifth place, respectively, was all the victory the Establishment/People Who Don't Want To Blow The Senate needed.

The Kentucky and Georgia races marked the peak of the season for the Establishment so far. The Chamber of Commerce's picks in each race either prevailed (Mitch McConnell) or made it into a runoff in which they have a great chance of winning (Rep. Jack Kingston). Of course they only did so by sprinting hard to the right to leave no daylight between themselves and their supposed Tea Party challengers. Neither McConnell nor Kingston had much good to say about comprehensive immigration reform, for example, passage of which is one of the Chamber of Commerce's top legislative priorities. But oh well! At least "the goofballs" didn't win. Instead, the supposedly competent ones simply adopted all of the Tea Party's positions.

Mississippi: The Tea Party is alive!

Sen. Thad Cochran is no left-winger, but in his reelection race, we did finally have traces of a real "Tea Party vs. Establishment" race. In Cochran's case, he more or less ran a campaign to give every Mississippi Republican a pork project. It's a straight appeal to seniority and the possibility of wielding the appropriations committee gavel. Sounds like a sweet deal to us, but the deeply principled Tea Party heroes, here led by challenger Chris McDaniel, reject that sort of wasteful liberal spending.

There were few excuses for Cochran to not trounce McDaniel, especially after several McDaniel supporters conspired to break into a nursing home and harass the old man's ill wife. But Cochran's proclivity for earmarking and apparent obliviousness on the campaign trail caught up to him, and he lost the June 3 primary to McDaniel by a few thousand votes. Since McDaniel couldn't top 50%, however, the two will face each other again in a runoff next week. Once again, Cochran is offering ten billion barrels of pork for every Mississippian while McDaniel's supporters are going out of their way to tarnish their candidate. And once again, it looks like McDaniel should pull it off.

South Carolina, Virginia-07: The Tea Party is ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

June 10 was supposed to be an Establishment day for the ages. Sen. Lindsey Graham, once dubbed the top 2014 target by the Club for Growth, scored a blowout, majority win against six challengers. Graham is very conservative and war-loving, but he is also perhaps the Senate's top advocate of comprehensive immigration reform. And he didn't run away from that on the campaign trail. Instead he worked behind the scenes to keep the challengers who had a chance at beating him from running, and built up a $13 million war chest to stave off the bums who did run. Did Graham prove once and for all that Establishment types could run openly as dealmakers, as long as they did the right prep work?

Perhaps Graham did, but no one's going to try again anytime soon. Because on June 10, in Virginia's 7th congressional district, a Tea Party economics professor named David Brat trounced House majority leader Eric Cantor in the district's Republican primary. This was the greatest Tea Party upset yet, and probably the most shocking political upset of our young century. And this is a race that the big national Tea Party groups didn't even bother to get involved with!

Cantor's loss launched more Fresh Takes than the political internet has ever previously witnessed. The first wave suggested that primary voters were rejecting Cantor for dabbling with immigration reform. The second wave argued NO YOU IDIOTS THIS HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH IMMIGRATION REFORM. It is about hatred towards the leadership and "crony capitalism," because nothing gets voters more worked up than the Export-Import Bank.

We'll never know the exact reason that Cantor lost. And that's probably because a lot of different voters had a lot of different reasons to dislike him. But the effect is clear enough: the congressional GOP won't get any less obstructionist in the near future. Nothing will pass.

Because even if the "Establishment" has a great year, and most incumbents survive, all it takes is a good scare or two each election cycle to grind normal legislative activity to a halt. And that's already been achieved.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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