Sen. Mitch McConnell's easy victory over his tea party opponent in Kentucky's Republican primary last week presents a tidy storyline: The establishment strikes back.
In the primary season so far, McConnell and fellow GOP incumbents have successfully out-organized and outspent such challengers from their right. And yet even as they rack up wins, they are revealing how the tea party already won the battle for influence in the Republican Party.
The GOP's civil war now looks more like a merger: the establishment has moved right, and many of the tea party's voters are rejoining/reconciling with that new mainstream — even if some of their self-appointed leaders are not.
Things looked vastly different when these Senate campaigns began and tea party groups such as FreedomWorks and the Senate Conservatives Fund audaciously announced their plan to unseat McConnell, the Senate Republican leader. That looked like a grudge match from which only one side could emerge alive.
"We are going to crush them everywhere," McConnell promised with chilling determination.
In Kentucky, he did just that, outspending his hapless challenger by millions and winning by a wide margin.
And the list of Republican senators who were purportedly endangered by challenges from the right, including Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, and Thad Cochran of Mississippi? Forget it. The only one in danger is Cochran, and he appears likely to win too.
In a year when voters are grouchy about incumbents, the most striking statistic may be this: Not a single Senate or House incumbent in either party has lost a primary election so far. Some have retired, but none has been defeated.
So what happened? Did the tea party's anger just disappear?
No. The GOP, like any smart political entity, absorbed that energy, in the form of unbending fiscal conservatism.
The tea party insurgency began, after all, after both parties voted for the 2009 bailouts of the nation's biggest banks. Now, five years later, it's hard to find much daylight on fiscal issues between "establishment" conservatives such as McConnell and "insurgent" conservatives like Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who endorsed him.
"When people ask where did the tea party go, the answer is: It went to Congress," said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, a small-government lobby. "Once there were Republicans who voted for tax increases, but they aren't here anymore. The Republican Party has largely absorbed the message of the tea party movement."
Tea party fervor has ebbed among the electorate too. In a Gallup Poll in November 2010, arguably the movement's high-water mark, 61 percent of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents supported the insurgent movement; last month, that number was 41 percent. Tea party supporters are still an important chunk of the GOP, but only a minority.
The issues that spark conservative fury have changed too. In 2010, they were angry about TARP, the Treasury Department's bailout of Wall Street. But to most voters, that is ancient history.
Republican voters' top concerns this year are the economy and President Barack Obama's health care plan — and on those, there's little difference between the two factions.
Finally, there's nothing like winning an election to settle a political argument. And that's what the GOP establishment has done this year — by supporting the primary campaigns of candidates who are thoroughly conservative, just not quite as radical as FreedomWorks and its allies want.
In the previous two elections, tea party enthusiasts nominated eccentric candidates for Senate seats: Delaware's Christine O'Donnell (who had to deny that she was a witch), Missouri's Todd Akin (who startled voters with talk of "legitimate rape"), Richard Mourdock in Indiana, Sharron Angle in Nevada. All lost.
"The biggest lesson of 2010 and 2012 was that candidates matter," said Scott Reed, a political strategist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a Republican establishment bulwark.
Mainstream Republican groups launched a major effort to make sure that didn't happen again this year.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee intervened early to help incumbents fight off challenges — and informed by history, fewer incumbents were taken by surprise. The chamber has spent more than $12 million on establishment candidates and promises to spend more.
There's still plenty of debate among its factions, but it's about time to retire the "civil war" metaphor. The party appears more united than it's been for almost a decade.
After the polls closed, the Senate Conservatives Fund even endorsed McConnell for election this fall. As November's congressional election approaches, that all counts as good news for Republicans — and bad news for Democrats.
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