In the primary season so far, McConnell and fellow
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
"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
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.
"When people ask where did the tea party go, the answer is: It went to
He cited the 2013 budget
Tea party fervor has ebbed among the electorate too. In a
The issues that spark conservative fury have changed too. In 2010, they were angry about TARP, the
Republican voters' top concerns this year are the economy and President Obama's healthcare 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
"The biggest lesson of 2010 and 2012 was that candidates matter," said Scott Reed, a political strategist for the
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.
So far, the Republican Party has skirted the pitfalls of those earlier years. Its voters are enthusiastic; its fundraisers are too. 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.