Before a no-name Tea Party challenger shocked Washington by defeating the second-ranking House Republican, Eric Cantor, the conventional wisdom was that the Tea Party’s bid to take over the Republican Party is floundering. The current Senate primary season offers plenty of evidence to support that view. With a small number of exceptions, Republican incumbents and establishment primary candidates have bested their Tea Party challengers.
Over the past six weeks, Tea Party candidates came up short in Senate primaries in North Carolina, Kentucky, Georgia and Oregon. Tea Party candidates scored wins in Texas in May, and a Tea Party candidate may well triumph in a June runoff for the Mississippi Senate primary. But its list of victories is much shorter than the GOP establishment’s; after all, Cantor lost to a Tea Party challenger the same night establishment Senator Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, sailed past six challengers to win his primary.
The press declared the Tea Party got its comeuppance. “GOP Establishment Strikes Back,” U.S. News & World Report announced on May 20 after a string of Tea Party defeats. “It appears they’ve finally quelled the intra-party insurgency.”
“Payback time: GOP incumbents learn how to win,” echoed Politico.
Not so fast. The victories for old-school Republicans are only half the story. The Tea Party may not be racking up many primary wins this year, but primary wins may no longer be the best metric of success.
“The goal of the Tea Party is not to elect Tea Party candidates but to change America, to affect public policy,” Richard Viguerie, the conservative activist who pioneered political direct mail and the chairman of ConservativeHQ.com, tells Newsweek. “If all Tea Party candidates lose but the country turns to the vision of our founders—to constitutional government—then we’ve won.”
And that is exactly what he sees happening. “The Republican Party is moving to the right,” he says. “Comprehensive immigration reform is not on the horizon. The list goes on and on and on of the issues that the Tea Party is influencing the Congress on.” Establishment candidates, meanwhile, are now “running on Tea Party–type issues.”
Viguerie has a point. Take Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, who handily defeated Tea Party challenger Matt Bevin last month. McConnell, an archetypal establishment figure who has spent the past three decades in Washington, won after positioning himself as an ultra-conservative—though spending a whopping $12 million on the race also helped.
Bevin tirelessly accused McConnell of being “liberal,” but when Louisville’s Courier-Journal sent an issues survey to the candidates, McConnell and Bevin agreed on virtually every issue. Bevin’s message that his opponent was not in line with Tea Party demands fell flat.
“[McConnell] is changing his positions based on the arrival of the Tea Party,” Viguerie says. “It’s certain the Republican Party is going to be a more conservative party in 2015 than it was at the beginning of 2010 with the arrival of the Tea Party.”
Don’t just take Viguerie’s word for it. “The debate has changed,” says Barney Keller, a spokesman for Club for Growth, the outside-spending powerhouse that more often than not aligns with Tea Party candidates and issues.
Keller points to the elimination of earmarks once championed by traditional Republican congressional leaders like McConnell and to the GOP’s now-persistent focus on cutting federal spending. “There’s friction within the party. And that’s a good thing, because the friction means that there are enough people who are pushing the party in a pro-growth direction,” he says.
It is not simply policies that separate the two sides in the Republican civil war. While the Tea Party plays up the battle of ideas, the establishment plays it down. Establishment-aligned GOPers like to cast the intra-party divisions as a tactical fight; Tea Party types think it’s an ideological one.
“The Republican Party is a conservative party,” says Peter Wehner, a George W. Bush administration official who has urged Republicans to focus on policies to help poor and working-class Americans. “There really aren’t important policy disagreements for the most part between the Republican establishment and the Tea Party. A lot of it is stylistic and rhetorical.”
He believes the struggle for the heart of the GOP is subsiding. “The best kind of thing that happens in [situations] like this is that a party absorbs a populist movement, sands off some of its rougher edges, channels its energy and makes it a bigger and better party,” he says. “I think by and large that’s really what’s happening.”
Exhibit A for those who think the battle between the Republican establishment and the Tea Party insurgents is almost over is state Senator Joni Ernst, the GOP establishment’s candidate for Iowa’s open Senate seat this year.
Ernst won her primary on June 2 with the backing of the establishment’s preferred presidential candidate in 2012, Mitt Romney, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which backs moderate, business-friendly Republicans with large amounts of money.
“If anything, the credit for [Ernst’s] triumph belongs with the so-called establishment,” assessed Politico, noting that one of her top consultants, David Kochel, ran Romney’s Iowa operation in 2012.
But here’s the problem with that scenario: She won by running to the right of her GOP rivals.
After kicking off her campaign with a viral ad in which she bragged about growing up “castrating hogs on an Iowa farm so when I get to Washington I’ll know how to cut pork,” Ernst clinched the nomination by making the ultra-conservative agenda her own.
In her final debate, Ernst said she would have voted against the farm bill, opposed “amnesty” in immigration reform and supported private accounts for young Americans paying into Social Security. She not only opposes raising the minimum wage but suggested the federal government shouldn’t even set one.
On social issues, Ernst said she would vote for a federal constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. She previously endorsed a fetal personhood amendment to the Iowa state constitution that would ban abortions as well as some forms of birth control.
Ernst’s statements were so conservative, she won the support of Tea Party groups like the Senate Conservatives Fund, which fought McConnell in Kentucky, as well as an endorsement from the ultimate Tea Party darling, Sarah Palin.
That may be described as an establishment win, but it sure looks like a Tea Party win. As Viguerie explains, “The real enemy is not [Democrats] Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, Barack Obama. The real enemy is the big-government Republicans.”
Beyond Congress, there are signs that the reason the civil war is subsiding at the state level is because Republican politics have moved significantly rightward. Establishment incumbents have had to swallow Tea Party ideas in order to survive.
“Just over the last couple of cycles, you do see things sliding to the right,” says Matt Walter, president of the Republican State Leadership Committee, which works to elect state-level Republicans. “That opens up more room for agreement on the Republican side.”
After 2012, as the Tea Party embarked on a mission to take over the GOP, the establishment set out to regain control of the party. It found it deeply galling to have lost winnable Senate races after the nomination of unelectable Tea Party candidates like Todd Akin in Missouri (remember his “legitimate rape” line?) and Richard Mourdock in Indiana (more offensive rape comments). And the establishment was aware that Romney had lost the important Latino vote by a fatal 44-point margin after adopting the Tea Party’s mantra on immigrant “self-deportation.”
At first, the establishment made winning primaries and passing immigration reform a top priority. Karl Rove, George W. Bush’s chief political strategist, who steers hundreds of millions of dollars through his American Crossroads super PAC and affiliated nonprofit, became involved in primaries. Mainstream Republican groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce followed suit.
Meanwhile, the Tea Party continued to cause Republicans grief, derailing a farm bill favored by members of both parties in 2013, then orchestrating an unpopular government shutdown last October. In response, establishment figures have pushed back against Tea Party groups.
“[The shutdown] alerted others within the Republican Party, including conservatives, that this is just not the way to go in terms of tactics and style,” Wehner says. “The Tea Party organizations have been badly hurt.”
But there is no real backlash from the establishment in terms of policy—as the GOP’s failure to make progress on immigration reform shows.
Though Tea Party groups have felt the establishment pushing back, they still have some successes to celebrate. “People are very engaged, and they’re enthusiastic,” Tea Party Patriots President Jenny Beth Martin told Newsweek while campaigning in Mississippi recently. “The Tea Party movement at this point understands that this is a long-term goal and it’s going to take us many years to get to the goal.”
In 2012, Martin’s group launched a super PAC to elect more Tea Party candidates. So far this election cycle, it has spent more than $8 million, most of it campaigning against establishment Republicans.
While the GOP establishment likes to talk about a rapprochement, it takes both sides to declare a truce. And the Tea Party is still waging an all-out war.
The great divide in the GOP has a long history, and there appears to be no end in sight. In his book Takeover: The 100-Year War for the Soul of the GOP and How Conservatives Can Finally Win It, Viguerie pegs the start of his party’s civil war to the 1912 election that pitted former Republican president Teddy Roosevelt (who left the Republicans to form his own Bull Moose Party) against his Republican successor, Howard Taft.
“It’s literally a 102-year-old war,” he says. “We’ll see how it plays out in 2014 and 2016.”