How the Tea Party Is Winning ... by Losing
Policy + Politics

How the Tea Party Is Winning ... by Losing

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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell may have delivered on his promise that the Republican establishment would “crush” the Tea Party in 2014. The man known by Kentucky Republicans as “the Godfather,” handily defeated his opponent, Matt Bevin, in Tuesday’s primary.

The GOP establishment winning streak continued in Idaho, Georgia, and Oregon, where voters showed a decided preference for more experienced or better financed Republican candidates - with better prospects for winning in November - than their Tea Party opponents.

Related: The Real Power of a Tea Party Centrist - Winning

But is crushing synonymous with destroying? 

Former Republican Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, who now serves as director of federal government affairs for Deloitte, told The Fiscal Times on Tuesday that he still considers the Tea Party a “force to be reckoned with.” For him, calling these hotly contested primaries a win or loss is premature.

“Establishment Republicans have learned how to handle the primary candidates,” says Davis. “That’s traditional. Basketball, baseball, or politics, that’s what’s required. When you’re under siege, you learn what it takes to beat” the competition. “But,” he added, “The season is not over yet.”

As McConnell predicted, Tuesday’s primary battles resulted in the Tea Party failing to take out any of the high profile incumbents it targeted. In Idaho, for example, Republican Rep. Mike Simpson easily fended off a challenge from Tea Party insurgent Bryan Smith in a closely-watched GOP primary. But a handful of election losses does not necessarily equate to a loss for the Tea Party as a whole.

Related: Cruz: The Tea Party Texan Who Wants to Save America from Itself 

Here’s why: They’ve succeeded in moving the GOP ideological dial to the right.  

In order to keep their seats, establishment Republicans have been forced to pander to the more conservative wing of the party, adopting more Tea Party-like rhetoric. As primary campaigns kicked into gear, incumbent Republicans’ anti-Obama rhetoric became increasingly more shrill. And Democratic priorities such as raising the minimum wage or finding a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants were off the table. Instead, there were constant echoes throughout the halls of Congress on repealing Obamacare.

But what’s more important than what establishment Republicans are doing is what they are not doing. With the understanding that simply doing nothing is what satisfies the far right, they have refused to cut significant deals with President Obama before the election. It’s what they had to do to win yesterday, and what they likely will do to win back the Senate in November.

Related: The ‘New and Improved’ Ted Cruz Infuriates His Colleagues Again

The conservative wing of the party has made it a steeper climb for Republicans to win back the Senate, and in McConnell's view, cost the GOP a handful or more Senate seats the last two cycles. “When they help nominate dysfunctional candidates who can’t win, they are not helping the party,” said Davis.

But does this split within the Republican Party hurt the party as a whole? For Davis, Republicans are still playing the dating game. “The problem is that the Tea Party and the Republican Party are not married. They’re just dating. Sure, they’ve had some rocky dates, but they’ve also had some pretty good times. Historically, they end up married.”

Take Barry Goldwater, the legendary senator and presidential candidate from Arizona who many referred to as ‘Mr. Conservative.’ He made his name as Mr. Anti Establishment, and to many in that day's Republican Party, was considered a disruptive gadfly. Yet, it wasn't all that far down the road that Ronald Reagan, with softer edges, borrowed from the Goldwater brand to create the Reagan brand—ultimately merging competing GOP strands. 

Davis sees a similar challenge today. 

“The Tea Party can’t win by themselves. The Republican Party can’t win by themselves. They both need to learn to accommodate,” says Davis. “When they learn to play well with others, they can be a very potent force.”

Related: This Could Be Mitch McConnell’s Last Hurrah 

When asked about Tuesday's contests, House Speaker John Boehner was careful not to gloat about establishment successes. "Listen, there is not that much, not that big a difference between what you call the Tea Party and your average conservative Republican," he said.

But Republicans aren’t setting out their fine china and sitting down for a proper teatime just yet. In the meantime, the establishment’s focus will remain on the short term, not the long term.

One of the big questions, unlikely to be answered until 2014 runs it's course and turns to 2015: Do GOP leaders like Boehner and McConnell continue to have their deal making instincts restrained by the Tea Party threat, or will "crushing" the movement liberate them to rethink compromise on issues like taxes, entitlements and immigration?

The answer will not only set the tone for the 2016 GOP nominating contest, it could determine whether the final two years of the Obama presidency are defined by gridlock or grand bargaining. 

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