The long-expected Tea Party-versus-Republican-establishment primary brawl seems to have largely evaporated. The real battles may emerge in January 2015, when the party needs to pick the House speaker — and maybe also a new leader in the Senate.
Not that we're trying to get ahead of ourselves. It's seemed pretty clear since at least February that the threat that had been brewing in the wake of the government shutdown was quickly fading. Politico has a great look at how South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham effectively built a fortress to ward off any conservative challengers: working to neuter possible opponents, building a huge war chest, and flooding the state with aides and representatives. Graham is one of the senators that seemed a likely target for far-right insurgents, but it didn't pan out.
In Ohio, House Speaker John Boehner faces a few primary opponents, including one, J. D. Winteregg, who has received broad support from Tea Party groups. There's no polling in the race, so it's hard to gauge exactly how big a threat Winteregg will turn out to be. But if money is any guide — and in politics, it tends to be — Winteregg has raised 1/127th of Boehner's nest egg, according to The Washington Post. For every two dollars Boehner can spend, Winteregg can spend a little over a penny. That isn't everything, but it bodes poorly. As does the fact that there are other protest candidates that will split the anti-Boehner vote.
So: Would all the Republican leaders who are coming back to Washington in 2015 please step forward? Not so fast, Mitch McConnell. The Senate majority leader faces the most significant challenge of any of the senior Republicans — thanks not to the Tea Party (he's almost certainly going to trounce Tea Party challenger Matt Bevin) but to Democrats. A new poll from The New York Times shows that McConnell is up by only a point over Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes. In part, that's probably due to his favorability rating in the state. Forty percent of Kentuckians think he's doing a good job. Fifty-two percent think he isn't. There's a lot of time before November, and McConnell's campaign against Grimes has barely ticked into gear. But compared to Graham — running in a deep red state — McConnell's position is uneasy.
Even if Senate Republicans avoid a contentious vote to figure out who will be their leader, the House won't be able to. In 2013, we saw emerging far-right caucus that helped force a shutdown emerge in opposition to reelecting Boehner as speaker. That fight will resume in January, without question. Last month, Boehner's job approval from voters across the country dropped to 29 percent, according to Rasmussen. That doesn't matter for his reelection in southwestern Ohio, but it matters a lot for his reelection on Capitol Hill. There have been rumors of a planned ouster of Boehner basically since January 2013, but with the election approaching (sort of), they're heating up.
And if there's a real challenge to Boehner, that's a fight in which the Tea Party can do some damage. There's no real alternative that's emerged on the far right so far. Breitbart, the site of record for the anti-Republican-establishment, argues against the viability of Eric Cantor, who would seemingly be the natural person to take over the job. Breitbart's Matt Boyle quotes a "senior GOP House aide" on Cantor: his election "would only be putting a well-trained and obedient prince on the throne in place of the king." Sounds like someone watches HBO.
By all appearances, the primaries are over and the Republican establishment won. Instead, stay tuned for next January's leadership fight(s). After a long build-up, we may finally see the Tea Party/GOP version of the Battle of Helm's Deep. And riding over the mountaintop on a brilliant white horse will be Lindsey Graham. Sounds like someone watches Lord of the Rings.