What Last Night's Tea Party 'Wins' Mean for the GOP

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Were last night's primaries a "win" for the Tea Party? Accepting, for a moment, the prevailing narrative winds of an establishment v. Tea Party fight for the soul of the Republican Party in this year's midterm elections, then the Nebraska and West Virginia results are, basically, close enough. 

Tea Party groups and conservatives endorsed Ben Sasse in the Nebraska Senate primaries, spending over $2 million campaigning for him leading up to last night's vote, which he easily won. Since Nebraska is deep red, the winner of last night's primaries has a very good chance of taking the general election in November. Even though Sasse is hardly the normal model of a Tea Party candidate — a university president, Sasse also holds "visiting scholar" status at the Brookings Institute — his campaign platform was cut from the conservative movement's cloth. He got a glowing review from the National Review early in his campaign, particularly for his opposition to the Affordable Care Act: 

With Sasse...Nebraska Republicans have an opportunity to do more: They can elect not merely a man who promises to vote for the repeal of President Obama’s signature policy achievement, but a senator who almost immediately would become one of the GOP’s most visible and articulate experts on the health-care law’s defects and the ways to replace it.

As, it turns out, Sasse's policies are very similar to those of his main rival, Shane Osborn. Osborn was initially endorsed by Freedomworks, but then Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell also endorsed Osborn. The national Tea Party groups, who all pretty much can't stand McConnell, switched teams and backed Sasse. Many other national Tea Party figures and groups followed suit. That move drew some anger from Nebraska-based Tea Party groups, who saw Sasse as a "mainstream" kind of Tea Party-type guy — someone who might end up too Washington — and not the candidate they favored. Anyway, Osborn actually ended up coming in third last night. Sid Disndale, a candidate that both Sasse and Osborn dismissed as too "moderate," came in second. Along with Sasse, there was another check mark on the Tea Party's victory board this week. West Virginia, the Tea-Party endorsed Alex Mooney won the nomination for the state's Second Congressional district. 

Even though the situation on the ground, especially in Nebraska, was clearly more complicated than a fight between establishment and Tea Party, the primary could demonstrate that the Tea Party wing of the national party — the current establishment's rivals to become the establishment — can also mobilize around successful candidates. Ed Kilgore at Talking Points Memo used the results to push back hard against the narrative that the establishment will win the day in 2014 and take back the GOP from its new class of Tea Party "insurgents." But in some ways, that prevailing battle narrative has already played out. 

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Because despite common perception that the Tea Party vs. Establishment fight is about just how conservative the GOP really is, even this year's establishment "wins" demonstrate that candidates running to the right do well. North Carolina's big establishment victory elevated Thom Tillis, the State Speaker of the House who led the charge of a Republican-majority's successful marathon of new, far-right, laws in the state. It's hard to find a difference between what Tillis supports and what the Tea Party wants. The difference is that Tillis is, presumably, a more polished politician. He's not going to talk about God willing rape pregnancies to happen or something like that and torpedo one of the GOP's best shots to get a vulnerable Democratic senator out of office. He has, however, said that the GOP should "divide and conquer" America's poor people, so that people who actually need government assistance "look down at these people who choose to get into a condition that makes them dependent on the government." And he helped to guide a bill that combined motorcycle and abortion regulations through the House. 

In other words, nothing and everything changes. The "establishment's" Tea Party trouble existed before the Tea Party even existed, because the national Tea Party is itself just the newest iteration of a particular alignment of influential conservatives within the party, who attract the same group of conservative voters to the polls. Time marches forever onward. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.