WASHINGTON — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is nobody's example of a tea party Republican. Just two months ago, in an interview with the New York Times, he said of the tea party candidates challenging establishment Republicans, "We will crush them everywhere."
That's exactly what McConnell did on Tuesday when he raced passed tea party favorite Matt Bevin to win the Senate primary in Kentucky. But what was most striking in the aftermath was how quickly the tea party — symbolized by the outside conservative groups that once were calling for the senator's defeat — rushed to embrace this embodiment of the Washington GOP establishment and call for party unity in the fall.
Tuesday's results — a very good night for the GOP establishment — were no big surprise. Establishment victories in the marquee races were predicted in advance. But based on the instant and overnight reactions, Democrats should no longer assume that the Republican opposition will be fractured, demoralized and as consumed by fighting each other as on taking back the Senate.
Republicans now appear ready to mount a united effort this fall with candidates more prepared than some were in the past to wage tough and costly general-election campaigns — and with a map that shows ample opportunities to win back the net of six Senate seats they need to turn the Democrats into the minority party in both houses of Congress.
All through the early part of this year, there has been one political narrative above all others: tea party vs. Republican establishment, or a Republican Party at war with itself. It is both a real and flawed concept, as the first rounds of primaries have demonstrated.
Real because there are important differences between hard-charging tea party conservatives and the more cautious establishment types. Flawed because the Republican Party of 2014 is still more united by its deep dislike of President Obama and his policies than by those differences.
Democrats recognize the challenges ahead, both because of the vagaries of midterm electorates that tend to favor the Republicans and what they see as a GOP establishment that has learned from its mistakes. They were not surprised by Tuesday night.
"I never underestimate their intelligence or their ability to see and understand their past mistakes and gaps and try to fill them," said a Democratic strategist, who declined to be identified to provide a more candid assessment of the coming contests. "We are facing a much more coordinated right than I think we saw in 2012."