The Republicans' Tea Party Problem

The Republicans are in danger of adopting a perpetual primary mentality.

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The GOP's inability to transition from a primary-campaign mentality is more than a columnist's literary device, as will start to become clear next week. Tuesday's Senate primary in Kentucky was the first in a series of Republican contests matching up grassroots conservatives against establishment candidates. Similar Senate contests will follow in Nevada and California in June (for the right to face Harry Reid and Barbara Boxer, respectively), Colorado (to run against Michael Bennet)and Arizona (where John McCain is embattled for renomination) in August, and New Hampshire (for retiring Sen. Judd Gregg's open seat) in September. The party's base could lock in a slate of uncompromising conservatives whose radicalism might be able to neutralize the wind at the GOP's back this year. "Right now the most important thing holding the Democrats up is the Republicans' embrace of the Flat Earth Society," says Democratic pollster Mark Mellman.

Take the Kentucky race, where Rand Paul, the son of Tea Party icon Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, won a handy victory Tuesday night. Put aside his initial stumble out of the gate over whether he would have voted for the Civil Rights Act. On a less philosophical note, ask yourself whether Kentuckians—who have gotten more than $1 billion in education funds from the federal stimulus bill—will embrace his call to abolish the Department of Education?

A string of nominees like Paul would enshrine the GOP's permanent primary mentality, matching candidates and base voters content to talk to each other in the fringe.

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