Reporters and commentators have been drawn to civil-war metaphors in describing the fight between the “establishment” and “tea party” wings of the Republican party for years now, and it has usually seemed overwrought. Then along came the shocking upset of House majority leader Eric Cantor in Virginia, followed by a Thad Cochran–Chris McDaniel Senate primary in Mississippi that was about as pleasant as the Battle of Chickamauga.
The drama of these elections — Cantor’s defeat was literally historic, and Cochran’s victory will generate ill feelings for a long time to come — has obscured the larger story of the evolution of the party. The GOP may well be coming together, not coming apart. Both wings of the party are, in fits and starts, converging on a new synthesis.
The tea parties have almost since their inception been attacking the party establishment for not standing for anything, and the establishment has been complaining for nearly as long that tea-party candidates are not ready for prime time. This primary season, each side seems to be learning the other’s lesson.
The candidate who best encapsulates the possible synthesis of the two wings is Ben Sasse, the college president who stormed out of nowhere to win the Republican nomination for the Senate in Nebraska. Sasse had the support of tea-party groups and campaigned on a full-throated anti-Obamacare and anti-Washington message. Yet he was a former Bush official who didn’t scare anyone, and he also talked about a governing agenda. He won a resounding victory over candidates who had either more establishment backing or more moderate records.
Sasse’s consultants wrote a shrewd memo on the meaning of his victory. “In the last two cycles,” they wrote, “we saw what happened when anti-establishment candidates with questionable backgrounds or poor campaign skills were nominated in several states. In 2012, other states showed what happened when the establishment worked to manipulate the system to put forward equally flawed candidates who also fared poorly in General Elections in 2012.”
It isn’t enough, they argued, for tea partiers to support conservative candidates. “We must also nominate,” they urged, “candidates who have substantial credibility as candidates, can articulate a vision of what they believe, can propose real solutions to problems, and don’t make significant mistakes on the campaign trail. We need conservative candidates, but they must also be skilled candidates in order to win.”
The marquee “establishment” victories this year in Kentucky, North Carolina, and Oklahoma have reflected the flip side of this coin. It’s not enough simply to be “electable,” or the longtime incumbent. Candidates who make the case that they will fight for conservative ideas, and not just serve time, can win tea-party support.
Polling suggests that Mitch McConnell won an outright majority of tea-party voters in Kentucky. By definition, the Senate minority leader is an establishment figure. But the relative ease with which he dispatched his challenger, Matt Bevin, spoke to how he had preserved his conservative bona fides and maintained a connection to his state.
In Oklahoma, Representative James Lankford won big over former state-house speaker T. W. Shannon, racking up a big enough margin to suggest that he too did well among tea partiers. Perhaps that should not be surprising, since he was considered one himself when he first won election to Congress in the wave of 2010. Some tea partiers soured on him because, for example, he voted to reopen the government during last year’s shutdown fight, but he was apparently able to convince many others that these votes did not reflect an abandonment of conservative goals.
Before winning his primary in North Carolina against two tea-party candidates, Thom Tillis was speaker of the North Carolina house at a time when the state was becoming a byword for an aggressive program of conservative reforms. So in all these races, Republican primary voters — including many tea partiers — decided that the establishment man was also theirs.
Cantor and Cochran are the exceptions that prove the rule. In retrospect, Cantor had clearly lost touch with his district, making him vulnerable. His favorability rating was shockingly low, and tea-party primary voters didn’t consider him conservative enough. Immigration was the issue that was the blasting cap. For a significant minority of voters, Cantor’s refusal to take a harder line on the issue was a reason to vote against him. For others, the issue lent credence to Dave Brat’s arguments that Cantor was out of touch, untrustworthy on issues, and a tool of big business.
In Mississippi, both the establishment and the tea-party candidates played to type, and their dueling weaknesses created a conflagration. Thad Cochran is a tea partier’s caricature of the Republican establishment. Aside from missile defense, he has been associated with no major conservative causes in his many years in office. These days, he is not a dynamic champion of anything. It was a stinging rebuke that he lost the first round of the primary narrowly to Chris McDaniel. He forged his comeback in the runoff, in part, by running as a dispenser of big-government benefits to a poor state and thereby attracting Democratic votes. (It was an open primary.) The future of the party this isn’t.
Cochran’s challenger, Chris McDaniel, was much more impressive than tea-party busts such as Christine O’Donnell. But he seemed perfectly capable of a Todd Akin–like gaffe. From the beginning, his campaign wasn’t just about making the case against Cochran, but about waging a personal war on him. This backfired when a handful of his supporters were caught trying to videotape the senator’s bedridden wife in a nursing home (a tea-party leader charged in the incident committed suicide shortly after the runoff).
If Mississippi were the norm, the Republican party would burn itself to the ground. Fortunately, it’s not. Even more fortunately, Republicans of all stripes can learn the lessons of these races. Establishment candidates who cross the party’s base on key issues and seem disengaged at home will have a rough time getting renominated; tea partiers who seem practical and forward-looking can unify the party.
The press has wanted to say that the establishment is “winning” or “losing” the primaries, but there is no such overall pattern. In most of these races, the “establishment” and “tea party” factions have been rather loosely defined. It appears that at the center of the Republican electorate are many voters who are not hostile to either group. They do not think of tea partiers as a bunch of crazies, or the Republican hierarchy as a group of quislings. Their reflex is to support the most effective conservative, regardless of label. And so the races have, for the most part, turned on specific issues and candidate quality rather than on which faction claims each candidate for its own.
At the same time, the party is also starting to forge a new agenda. Much of this work is being done by tea partiers who came to the Senate in 2010: Mike Lee, Marco Rubio, and to a lesser extent Rand Paul. They have been proposing new conservative policies on everything from higher education to taxes to criminal justice: policies that could simultaneously unify the party, attract the public, and improve the country’s governance. One of Lee’s ideas is to break the accreditation monopoly of what he calls “the higher-education cartel.” It’s easy to see Ben Sasse, the tea-party winner, co-sponsoring legislation on it next year. But it’s just as easy to see Tillis, the establishment man, doing the same thing if he makes it to the Senate.
In part because of the Cantor defeat, the Republican leadership in the House appears likely to allow the Export-Import Bank to expire. Here too is another change in the party’s agenda, which now includes a stand against corporate welfare. Tea partiers have led the fight on the Ex-Im Bank. On this issue they have an achievable goal and a plausible strategy, and the fight will communicate a message about the party that might help it in the future. In all three respects that’s an improvement over the tea-party campaign that led to the government shutdown last fall.
Party establishments too often become expert at the means of acquiring and retaining power and indifferent to its ends, and the Republican establishment has not proven immune to this tendency. Tea partiers have had a clearer sense of the proper ends of conservative politics, which is why we have more often sided with them in these internal disputes; but they have sometimes given too little thought to questions of means. It is just possible that the party as a whole is fumbling toward the right combination — realism about means and idealism about ends — and devising a winning policy agenda.
Is this analysis just wishful thinking? If so, it’s a wish other conservatives should share. Because if there’s one thing even more wishful, it’s the alternative of the two sides’ ferociously fighting it out until one of them vanquishes the other altogether and then beats the Democrats in 2016.