The 2014 Primaries: Crushing The Tea Party

Tony Quinn
Editor, California Target Book

The 2014 primaries are now pretty much over and the Tea Party has lost every contest where it tried to oust an incumbent Republican.  As a political force in America, the Tea Party now is only a shadow of its former self, although the more liberal media will likely continue to prop it up to embarrass Republicans.

Early in the cycle Tea Party allied groups selected six GOP senators and one congressman for defeat, claiming they were all too “moderate.”  Their biggest target was Sen. Thad Cochran in Mississippi, but they also went after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Congressman Mike Simpson of Idaho.  They also tried to nominate Tea Party types for the Senate in Georgia, North Carolina and Oklahoma.  They fell short in every race.

The earliest primary was in Texas.  The Tea Party candidate, Rep. Steve Stockman, was such a loon even the Tea Party types stayed clear of him and Cornyn won easily.  The first big assault was against Sen. McConnell, an inside player and cleaver deal maker who led the Republicans out of the morass of last year’s government shutdown.  But their candidate had too much personal baggage and went down in a landslide.

Sen. Lindsay Graham faced six unknown Republicans in his primary, each claiming Graham was too “liberal” and they were the true Tea Party Republicans.  To avoid a runoff, Graham had to win more than 50 percent in his primary.  He prevailed with 56 percent of the vote and is on his way back to Washington for another six years.

Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas may have been the most vulnerable of this year’s incumbents, on paper at least.  He is 78 years old, and admittedly did not maintain a home in Kansas.  But he had the good luck of running against a real weirdo, a physician named Milton Wolf who was among other things, Barack Obama’s cousin.  But Dr. Wolf liked to post pictures of dead bodies on his Facebook page and make crude jokes about them.  The people of Kansas came to believe he had some kind of fetish about dead bodies, and the vulnerable Pat Roberts easily won.

The Tea Party in Tennessee tried to make a run against long time Sen. Lamar Alexander, a former governor and Secretary of Education, but their candidate never got traction.  In Idaho, the Tea Party lost interest in its challenge to Rep. Mike Simpson, a close ally of Speaker John Boehner, and he won an easy re-election.

Only three incumbent Republican members of congress lost in this cycle.  The Tea Party tried after the fact to take credit for the stunning defeat of House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, but in fact the Tea Party did not get involved in his race and he lost for district related reasons.  One of the three ousted congressmen, Rep. Kerry Bentivolioi of Michigan, was a Tea Party member himself.

But the biggest Tea Party loss, bar none, was in Mississippi where the state establishment seized victory for Sen. Thad Cochran right out of the jaws of defeat.  Cochran is 77 years old and did not even want to run again after 36 years in the Senate, but he is in line to become chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee if the GOP takes the Senate, and influential Mississippians talked him into seeking another term.

Here the Tea Party had at least a presentable candidate in State Sen. Chris McDaniel, and it looked like he was going to win as he got 49.5 percent in the first primary to 49 percent for Sen. Cochran.  But as both man fell just short of the 50 percent requirement to win, a primary runoff was necessary.

Tea Party allied groups poured more than $3 million into attacks on Cochran and support for McDaniel, but Cochran had a secret weapon, the political machine assembled by the wily former governor of Mississippi, Haley Barbour.  In the runoff, these Cochran supporters made an appeal to black voters who had not already voted in the Democratic primary to vote for Cochran in the Republican runoff.  It worked and in the runoff Cochran prevailed by 7,600 votes after trailing by 1,400 votes in the first primary.  The Tea Party had simply been outfoxed by a ground game it never saw coming.  Despite howls of protest, the Cochran win, based largely on black Democratic votes, has prevailed.

Here in California, the Tea Party fizzled out as well.  Its candidate for governor, Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, lost, and it failed to nominate any Tea Party types in the contested congressional primaries.

There are two consequences of crushing the Tea Party in 2014: first, the Republican Party is not burdened by unwinnable candidates like those the Tea Party foisted on it in 2010 and 2012.  Secondly, the GOP set of candidates this year unusually strong and the likelihood is that Republicans win back control of the Senate this fall.

The RealClearPolitics polling summary currently shows Republicans leading for seven Democratic held Senate seats, enough to win control, and there is no question that Republicans will hold the House of Representatives, and possibly add to their numbers there.  If they do, President Obama will be forced to negotiate with Republicans in the last two years of his term, and Republicans will be able to set the legislative agenda.  None of this would be possible had the GOP mainstream not come together and beaten the Tea Party insurgents in this year’s primaries.

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