The GOP Goes Pragmatic

In Tuesday's elections, candidates who can win won, and candidates prone to blow it blew it. 

The Associated Press

Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell addresses his supporters.

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So did Mitch McConnell keep his word and bury the tea party?

The overwhelming victory of McConnell himself — the embodiment of the Republican establishment — over tea party-aligned Matt Bevin in the Kentucky Republican Senate primary would suggest so. So, many would say, did the victory by Thom Tillis, North Carolina’s speaker of the House, in the Republican primary to take on incumbent Kay Hagan. Tea party Senate candidates in Georgia and Colorado have been vanquished as well.

But most expect Tillis will earn tea party support when the dust clears, and Georgians are expected to line up behind their eventual nominee as well. Chris McDaniel in Mississippi, a tea party challenger to Thad Cochran, who has been in the Senate since 1978, could well win. And David Dewhurst, an establishment Republican stalwart, could lose his job as lieutenant governor of Texas if present trends continue.

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This is disturbing not to Republicans but to Democratic operatives and their friends in the media. As Robert Costa and Phillip Rucker wrote in The Washington Post, “Democrats were left disappointed” with Tuesday’s primary results, as “GOP Senate candidates prone to making controversial statements lost to better-financed, more disciplined rivals with the potential to capi­tal­ize on Obama’s unpopularity and the troubles with his signature health-care law.”

That is, candidates who can win won, and candidates prone to blow it blew it.

As Republicans pull further ahead in generic balloting, favorable-unfavorable ratings and other polling techniques, it’s getting harder and harder for Democrats to peddle the line it will all come unraveled because of party infighting and nasty primaries.

They’ve seen it all before – Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, Todd Akin in Missouri, the hand-picked candidate of the state’s Democratic party, Ken Buck in Colorado and Richard Mourdock in Indiana – unfit candidates who might well have, collectively, cost the Republicans control of the Senate over the last two years.

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Republicans – operatives, political organizations and even voters – seem to have moved on from those times. They still want strong conservative governance and immediate repeal of Obamacare. But they’ve decided President Reagan was right when he said someone who is 80 percent your friend is your friend, as was William Buckley when he said to vote for the candidate who can win the general election.

The Democratic response, aside from private panic, has been interesting. “The civil war is over. The good guys lost. They’re all knuckle-dragging tea party idiots now,” seems to be the line. What must McConnell make of this?

It is still too early to start spiking the football. Republicans must knock off several incumbents to take control of the Senate, and incumbents win nearly 90 percent of the time. Sen. Mary Landrieu seems vulnerable in Louisiana, but there is a long tradition there of Democratic incumbents polling low, then pulling out narrow victories.

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Rep. Tom Cotton is in an increasingly uphill battle against Democratic incumbent Sen. David Pryor in Arkansas. It’s not known if Tillis can overtake Hagan or whether the eventual Georgia winner, who must endure a nine-week intraparty slugfest just to get the nomination, can hold off Michelle Nunn and her extremely high name ID.

But the Republicans have chosen a path forward that seems primed for success. The civil war is over. They have gone pragmatic. They understand the stakes – our health care system is in free fall thanks to past electoral miscalculations – and they are putting forward candidates who can win at the next level. It’s not tea party v. establishment; it’s Republican v. Democrat.

It’s still no more than a 50/50 bet Republicans will retake the Senate. But at least the party has analyzed past losses and made a genuine attempt not to repeat those mistakes.