WASHINGTON - It’s been a good week for the establishment wing of the Republican Party. They beat back Tea Party challengers in Senate primaries in Mississippi and Oklahoma and regained the momentum in the ongoing struggle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party.
Their victory in Mississippi was a bit of a surprise. Many analysts had written off veteran Republican Senator Thad Cochran when he was forced into a runoff primary election against Tea Party favorite Chris McDaniel. McDaniel appeared to have the momentum and got a lot of help from national Tea Party groups who offered both money and on-the-ground volunteers. But Cochran strategists made the wise decision to expand the electorate to include Democrats, many of whom are African-American. Mississippi Democrats were allowed to vote in the Republican runoff as long as they hadn’t voted in the Democratic primary a few weeks earlier.
The tactic worked. Cochran narrowly won by broadening his voting pool with direct appeals to Democrats worried about the impact of another Tea Party victory. McDaniel was plenty sore about it on election night and accused Cochran and his supporters of “abandoning the conservative movement” by reaching out to “liberal Democrats.” Of course, the appeal worked in part because McDaniel was a flawed candidate with plenty of controversial statements in his past that Cochran and his allies had an easy time picking apart.
Part of a trend
So far with one major exception, the Republican establishment has had a very good election cycle in its struggle with the Tea Party. That major exception came a few weeks back with the stunning defeat of House Majority leader Eric Cantor, a Republican Congressman from Virginia. Grassroots Tea Party activists had a lot to do with Cantor’s defeat but national Tea Party groups played little role. Cantor’s loss seemed to be more about how he had lost touch with the voters in his district than some sort of Tea Party wave cresting for his challenger, David Brat.
Many Tea Party supporters had hoped that the Cantor loss would be the start of another round of victories over mainstream Republican candidates. But that notion quickly dissolved with the McDaniel loss in Mississippi and the results from the Republican Senate primary in Oklahoma where Congressman James Lankford defeated Tea Party favorite T.W. Shannon. Tea Party challengers have also fallen short in Republican primaries this year in Kentucky, Iowa, Georgia and North Carolina.
Republicans apparently learned some hard lessons from primary battles in 2010 and 2012 when flawed Tea Party candidates defeated mainstream candidates only to be done in by controversial comments in the general election, resulting in Democratic victories. This year Republicans know they are in a great position to pick up the six Democratic seats they need to regain a majority in the Senate. They appear to be doing everything possible to make sure that flawed Tea Party candidates don’t blow their chance to take control of the Senate.
Tea Party influence remains strong
Even though many Tea Party challengers have fallen short this year, the movement still exerts enormous influence within the Republican Party. Lawmakers from both parties are now saying that immigration reform is effectively dead for this year, largely because it would be a difficult sell for Republicans seeking re-election in the November elections.
Cantor’s defeat in Virginia was taken as a warning shot by many Republican House members who might have been persuaded to support an incremental approach to reform. But combining the Cantor loss with the recent influx of tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors from Central America has led to many Republicans simply concluding that the time is not right politically to move ahead on anything that even begins to address the status of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants already in the country. It’s likely the fate of immigration reform will play more of a factor in the 2016 presidential elections. Of course by then the proportion of Hispanic voters will be even larger than it was in 2012 when President Obama relied on their strong support to win a second term.
Obama remains a focus
Tea Party pressure and influence is also evident in other ways. House Speaker John Boehner’s announcement that he will file a federal lawsuit against President Obama’s use of executive orders is likely to garner a lot of support among conservative activists who have long seen Mr. Obama as the “imperial president.” It’s also something Republican Party officials can point to as they urge conservatives to get out and vote in November to send a strong message to the Obama administration.
You can also expect to hear a lot more about Republicans demands for the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate allegations that the Internal Revenue Service illegally targeted conservative and Tea Party groups because of their political beliefs. Texas Senator Ted Cruz is leading the charge, demanding that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder either appoint a special prosecutor in the case or risk impeachment. This could serve as yet another rallying point for conservative and Tea Party groups in November.
In short, the Tea Party has taken some hits on the battlefield during this year’s Republican primaries. But make no mistake the Tea Party movement remains a powerful get-out-the-vote tool for the Republican Party. And a lot of Republican House and Senate candidates have learned the hard way in recent years that it generally doesn’t pay to be on the wrong side of the Tea Party when they can affect the outcome of primary elections through both money and volunteers.
It’s likely this rivalry or civil war, whichever you want to call it, will continue and perhaps intensify in the 2016 presidential election cycle, when a host of potential Republican presidential candidates, including many Tea Party favorites, will debate their differences in the national spotlight of presidential primary debates.