How the GOP Establishment Tea-Partied the Tea Party

After years of trying to accommodate conservatives, mainstream Republicans finally went to war on Tuesday—and won.
Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

On Tuesday, Republican Ken Cuccinelli lost the Virginia governor's race by less than 3 percentage points—a far smaller margin than the polls had led people to expect. The defeat has conservatives up in arms. Cuccinelli, they charge, could have won had he not been abandoned by the Republican National Committee and other interest groups that saw him as a lost cause.

"The GOP establishment, rather than come to the aid of Cuccinelli, left him out hanging to drive [sic]," Tea Party Patriots leader Jenny Beth Martin said in a statement. "He was betrayed by his own party," fumed Rush Limbaugh, who accused the party of wanting Cuccinelli to lose. Cuccinelli was outspent by more than $15 million; he got no funding from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and his $3 million from the RNC was just one-third the amount the committee spent for his predecessor four years ago.

Meanwhile, in Alabama, business-backed candidate Bradley Byrne won a Republican House primary against Dean Young, his outspoken Tea Party-affiliated opponent. And in New Jersey, Chris Christie's pugnacious pragmatism won him a huge victory. But if it was, as many are saying, a rough night for the Tea Party and a good night for the Republican establishment, that's only because the Tea Party finally got a dose of its own medicine.

Since its ascendance as a political force, the Tea Party has drawn its power from exactly the tactics the establishment used on Tuesday. The far right has thrown most of its energies into Republican primaries; it has loudly refused to support candidates that didn't meet its standards; it has threatened to sit out elections featuring an "impure" nominee; and it has been perfectly willing to lose seats for the party if that was the price of getting its way. Whether knocking off respected incumbents like Dick Lugar and Bob Bennett or elevating untested candidates like Sharron Angle and Christine O'Donnell, the Tea Party's M.O. has been to pour resources into draining, quixotic intraparty battles, even if they came at the expense of general-election victories. Many conservatives still argue that Mitt Romney lost the 2012 presidential election because he wasn't forcefully conservative enough, causing an unenthusiastic GOP base to stay home. Like the establishment Limbaugh describes, they're gratified by losing if it bolsters their theory.

Until now, the establishment has mostly tried to reason with the Tea Party rather than play its game. Spooked by the right-wingers' passion and numbers, the country-clubbers have sought to placate the pitchfork-wielding mob with appeals to common purpose and calmly reasonable arguments for unity. When the Tea Partiers have won primaries, the establishmentarians have largely sucked it up and fallen in behind them, figuring even an out-there Republican is better than a Democrat.

But in the wake of the government shutdown, and with the right wing of the party waging open warfare on GOP institutions, the establishment has finally joined the battle. The results were surprising. In Alabama, the candidate who got $200,000 from the Chamber of Commerce came from behind to defeat the candidate who said President Obama was born in Kenya, proving that the establishment can beat the base in a head-to-head battle in deep-red territory. In Virginia, the establishment showed it's willing to withhold support from a candidate who refuses to toe the line—and the result proved that the base is hard-pressed to win on its own without establishment money and tactics.

Meanwhile, in New Jersey, Christie demonstrated that a centrist candidate can thumb his nose at the right and still win. Conservatives love to claim that far-right candidates are actually more electable, but less than a month ago the New Jersey Tea Partier who once ran a primary race against Christie, Steve Lonegan, lost a low-turnout special election to Cory Booker. Not only can't Tea Partiers win elections on their own, Christie showed that establishment Republicans can win tough races without their help. 

Conservatives can complain all they want. But what's being done to them is only what they've done in the past. The Republican establishment has turned the Tea Partiers' tactics against them, and the establishment is winning.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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