Here’s How the GOP Tamed the Tea Party Ahead of the Midterms

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The establishment wing of the Republican Party has begun to prune itself of its Tea Party fringe, and in doing so, set the stage for what the GOP hopes will be a landslide victory in the coming congressional midterm elections. Ballots cast in recent primaries prove the party is attempting to streamline its rhetoric, with the personal wealth of winning candidates and the support of business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce acting as decisive factors in determining primary results. The GOP’s goal now is avoiding the missteps made in 2010 and 2012, when Tea Party candidates such as Sharron Angle in Nevada and Todd Akin in Missouri lost winnable races for the Republicans with weak campaigns and other errors. And, with massive campaign spending and the endorsements of business interests guiding the debate, voters complied, picking candidates who have a better chance of winning in November.

Six high-stakes primary elections took place on Tuesday, making May 20 the biggest and most important political contest leading up to November’s congressional midterms. Registered Republican voters went to the polls to chose Senate candidates in Georgia, Kentucky, and Oregon; Pennsylvania Democrats voted for an opponent to run against current governor Tom Corbett; and Georgia voters cast their ballots in a number of primary races for open Congress seats.

It is a well-known fact that midterm elections — and especially their primaries — typically suffer from very low voter turnout. Not only do voters in midterm elections tend to be those most passionate about the political issues, those citizens who cast ballots are generally older, whiter, and more conservative than the broader population. The Economist has projected that this year’s midterm electorate will be as white as America was in 1983 when Ronald Reagan was president and as old as the the country will be in 2050. That means that about 77 percent of voters will be white and approximately 21 percent will be over the age of 65. While such a racial composition reflects the demographics of a past America, only around thirty of the country’s 435 congressional districts currently hover around the 77-percent-white mark. And of those thirty districts, most are held by Republicans. By comparison, few districts have high proportions of older voters. Only in eleven districts, concentrated in Arizona and Florida, are more than one-quarter of voters over the age of 65, and of those districts, only three have Democrat congressmen. These demographic realities of the 2014 midterm election is the reason that Republicans are generally expected to take control of the Senate. Yet, those demographic realities also mean Republican rhetoric will be under the political microscope.

Of course, even though the midterm electorate tends to be both whiter and older than the broader voting population, Democrats have won plenty of seats in other midterm elections. The problem this year is President Barack Obama, whose abysmal job approval rating has not touched 50 percent for more than a year. And sitting Democrats will both benefit from their incumbent positions and hurt thanks to the handicap of belonging to the president’s party. Voters may malign Washington for how partisanship politics prevent any real progress, but voting patterns suggest Americans prefer a divided government. In the past nineteen midterm elections, the party in control of the White House has lost seats in all but three contests. But while data suggests voters prefer a divided government, it is important to note that a preference for a balance between conservative and liberal leadership does not mean voters condone inaction.

Yet, drawing on recent poll data and historical figures, running calculations made by The New York Times show the odds now favor the Democrat party. “According to our statistical election-forecasting machine, the Democrats have a slight edge, with about a 59% chance of retaining a majority,” notes the publication. But, there are six incumbent Democrat senators that are considered to be in trouble come November: John Walsh of Montana has a 95 percent chance of losing his seat; Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana has a 59 percent chance, Mark Begich of Alaska has a 50 percent chance, Kay Hagan of North Carolina has a 47 percent chance, Mark Udall of Colorado has a 39 percent chance, and Mark Pryor of Arkansas has a 37 percent chance.


And with the number of key issues resting in the hands of Congress — the future of the Affordable Care Act, Immigration Reform, the economic recovery, and minimum wage — and the given the ability of the coming election to drastically change the makeup of Congress, Tuesday’s primaries provide a key glimpse of the future. The primaries provide the opportunity to analyze how party leadership will guide campaigns: which issues will be highlighted and how party rhetoric will be managed. For example, the Republican Party is largely expected to shed its Tea Party fringe. Unlike in the previous two elections, establishment Republicans will likely not be in danger of an upset. And that reality bolsters the GOP’s chances of winning a Senate majority. While a number of news outlets have framed this in terms of big business triumphing over the Tea Party, it is much more accurate to say that the Republican Party has learned how not to shoot itself in the foot.

Kentucky’s renomination of Mitch McConnell — the Senate Minority Leader — set the tone for all of Tuesday’s primary elections. For the first time since he joined Congress in 1984, McConnell faced a well-financed Republican primary opponent. But contrary to early political analysis, which saw the senator as vulnerable to a conservative challenge, his victory over businessman Matt Bevin came easy. Although, McConnell did spend more than $10 million on his campaign thus far, according to the Federal Election Commission. His victory sets up his race against Democrat nominee Alison Lundergan Grimes, which is expected to be not only the most costly Senate contest this year, but also McConnell most difficult electoral fight of his career.

Yet, it is important to note that McConnell did not entirely eschew the Tea Party element in his campaign; he consulted his colleague, fellow Kentucky senator and Tea Party favorite Rand Paul, and hired a campaign manager with Tea Party credentials. But now he will both have to create political distance from that faction of the Republican Party and “at the same time try to demonstrate that he embraces some of their key issues,” as Ernest Yanarella, chairman of the political science department at the University of Kentucky, told USA Today.

While Tuesday’s elections should not be framed as the victory of big business over the extreme faction of the GOP, the role business played in the primaries should not be ignored. The United States Chamber of Congress backed McConnell as well as successful candidates in Georgia, Idaho, Oregon, and Pennsylvania; and the National Realtors Association and the National Retail Federation played a role in the renomination of Republican Representative Mike Simpson in Idaho.

“When the establishment runs on our issues, it’s clear that there is a larger cultural shift happening here,” believes Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks for America, a grassroots organization allied with the Tea Party. “Constitutional conservatives and libertarians are setting the agenda in the Republican Party,” he argued. In Kibbe’s opinion, “Matt Bevin’s principled challenge helped Senator McConnell rediscover his conservative principles come November,” meaning that the incumbent lawmaker had to embrace, at least to a small degree, some of the Tea Party’s agenda in order to win over its constituency. “The tireless efforts of grassroots volunteers across the state moved Senator McConnell back to common sense conservative positions that should help him compete in the general election,” Kibbe concluded.

Further explaining that “cultural shift,” former Ohio congressman Steve LaTourette told USA Today that the “game is up” on conservative groups focusing on unseating conservative incumbents as their expressed goal. But, to be clear, the Tea Party ideology has not been purged from the broader party. Rather, the establishment wing of the GOP and Washington Republicans have incorporated portions of the Tea Party agenda as a strategy to keep the party from fracturing and losing more power in Congress. That is the true cultural shift. Even Democrats acknowledge that was the correct move to make. “Unlike 2010 and 2012, in order to avoid losing to the Tea Party, Washington Republicans have embraced their candidates and policies,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Justin Barasky told the publication. “It’s a good strategy in the primaries, but not in the general election.”

But the stage has been set for November’s general election; votes cast in Tuesday’s races in Kentucky, Georgia, Arkansas and Oregon have set up the battles that will determine which party controls the Senate. And for the Republicans to gain a majority in the upper house of Congress, the general elections in those states are essential; Tom Cotton will have to unseat Democratic Senator Mark Pryor of Arkansas; and Surgeon Monica Wehby will have to beat freshman Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley in Oregon. As for  Georgia, the Republican primary race ended in a tie. A run-off election must determine the party’s Senate candidate. And the battle between the two Republicans — David Perdue, the former Reebok and Dollar General chief executive who spent more than $2 million of his own money to fund his campaign, and eleven-term Representative and Chamber of Commerce-sponsored Jack Kingston — could help Democrat Michelle Nunn capture the seat of retiring GOP Senator Saxby Chambliss.

“Both of the candidates who make the run-off will go in and spend every nickel they can lay their hands on,” University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock told USA Today. “Come July 23, the Republican nominee will come limping out. The challenge will be that whoever wins will have to put the party back together.”

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