In Mississippi, both the establishment and the tea-party candidates played to type, and their dueling weaknesses created a conflagration. Thad Cochran is a tea partier’s caricature of the Republican establishment. Aside from missile defense, he has been associated with no major conservative causes in his many years in office. These days, he is not a dynamic champion of anything. It was a stinging rebuke that he lost the first round of the primary narrowly to Chris McDaniel. He forged his comeback in the runoff, in part, by running as a dispenser of big-government benefits to a poor state and thereby attracting Democratic votes. (It was an open primary.) The future of the party this isn’t.
Cochran’s challenger, Chris McDaniel, was much more impressive than tea-party busts such as Christine O’Donnell. But he seemed perfectly capable of a Todd Akin–like gaffe. From the beginning, his campaign wasn’t just about making the case against Cochran, but about waging a personal war on him. This backfired when a handful of his supporters were caught trying to videotape the senator’s bedridden wife in a nursing home (a tea-party leader charged in the incident committed suicide shortly after the runoff).
If Mississippi were the norm, the Republican party would burn itself to the ground. Fortunately, it’s not. Even more fortunately, Republicans of all stripes can learn the lessons of these races. Establishment candidates who cross the party’s base on key issues and seem disengaged at home will have a rough time getting renominated; tea partiers who seem practical and forward-looking can unify the party.
The press has wanted to say that the establishment is “winning” or “losing” the primaries, but there is no such overall pattern. In most of these races, the “establishment” and “tea party” factions have been rather loosely defined. It appears that at the center of the Republican electorate are many voters who are not hostile to either group. They do not think of tea partiers as a bunch of crazies, or the Republican hierarchy as a group of quislings. Their reflex is to support the most effective conservative, regardless of label. And so the races have, for the most part, turned on specific issues and candidate quality rather than on which faction claims each candidate for its own.
At the same time, the party is also starting to forge a new agenda. Much of this work is being done by tea partiers who came to the Senate in 2010: Mike Lee, Marco Rubio, and to a lesser extent Rand Paul. They have been proposing new conservative policies on everything from higher education to taxes to criminal justice: policies that could simultaneously unify the party, attract the public, and improve the country’s governance. One of Lee’s ideas is to break the accreditation monopoly of what he calls “the higher-education cartel.” It’s easy to see Ben Sasse, the tea-party winner, co-sponsoring legislation on it next year. But it’s just as easy to see Tillis, the establishment man, doing the same thing if he makes it to the Senate.
In part because of the Cantor defeat, the Republican leadership in the House appears likely to allow the Export-Import Bank to expire. Here too is another change in the party’s agenda, which now includes a stand against corporate welfare. Tea partiers have led the fight on the Ex-Im Bank. On this issue they have an achievable goal and a plausible strategy, and the fight will communicate a message about the party that might help it in the future. In all three respects that’s an improvement over the tea-party campaign that led to the government shutdown last fall.
Party establishments too often become expert at the means of acquiring and retaining power and indifferent to its ends, and the Republican establishment has not proven immune to this tendency. Tea partiers have had a clearer sense of the proper ends of conservative politics, which is why we have more often sided with them in these internal disputes; but they have sometimes given too little thought to questions of means. It is just possible that the party as a whole is fumbling toward the right combination — realism about means and idealism about ends — and devising a winning policy agenda.
Is this analysis just wishful thinking? If so, it’s a wish other conservatives should share. Because if there’s one thing even more wishful, it’s the alternative of the two sides’ ferociously fighting it out until one of them vanquishes the other altogether and then beats the Democrats in 2016.
– This article is from the July 21, 2014, issue of National Review.