Things were complicated in Senate seats Republicans took, too. Jeff Flake in Arizona won the primary as a consensus candidate of the “grassroots” and the “establishment.” Deb Fischer of Nebraska came out of nowhere in a three-way race in which the Tea Party Express, the Club for Growth, and Sarah Palin each endorsed a different candidate. And so on.
What “establishment” could have cleaned all this up? While it’s true that in the 2012 cycle, the RNC, NRCC, NRSC, and the like averred a relatively “hands off” approach to primaries, the suggestion that there is a small group of party elites who can determine outcomes is itself the kind of conspiratorial thinking the Birchers favored. Even back in 2010 — call it the High Tea election — Rand Paul beat Mitch McConnell’s handpicked choice; Christine O’Donnell beat Mike Castle, a guy so “establishment” that it is said his arrival in the Senate was prefigured by a birthmark on his posterior in the shape of Nelson Rockefeller’s face. In Paul, we got a principled if unorthodox mover and shaker who is trying to reverse-engineer libertarianism from conservatism. In O’Donnell we got a former reality-show star and avowed Muggle who will make a charming anecdote for the retired political bloggers of 2032.
Picture me shrugging. I have not personally been happy with the way every contested Republican primary has broken over the last three years, and on several occasions, I think, Republican primary voters chose candidates who made winnable races losers.
Them’s the breaks. But it’s bizarre that Welch’s line of criticism assumes that the forces that produced primary wins for the Sharron Angles and Todd Akins of the world were causally distinct from those that produced general-election wins in 2009 and 2010 for the likes of Chris Christie (whom Welch lists as a paragon of the establishment) and Scott Brown, the two earliest portents of the coming wave.
The congeries of overlapping phenomena we call the Tea Party is too diffuse and contradictory to be talked about as a monolith. And the Republican nomination process — or hell, let’s just call it “democracy” — is too unwieldy for any establishment to master. It will deliver us Angles and Akins, Cruzes and Lees, and even the occasional Brown. Ever thus.
What’s for certain is that RINOs’ writing the Tea Party out of the picture is no healthier for the future of conservatism or Republicanism than is the inverse. Why, if Bill Buckley saw infighting like this he’d surely —
— Daniel Foster is National Review Online’s news editor.