George W. Bush strategist Karl Rove looked like the proverbial cat that ate the canary. Republicans had won control of the U.S. Senate and the newcomers were all his kind of politicians. Commenting for Fox TV election night he recounted successes in Colorado, North Carolina, Kansas, Mississippi and Tennessee primaries using his super-PAC American Crossroads’ millions to defeat Tea Party candidates who challenged his Republican establishment favorites.
It was a stunning victory that gives the establishment a big step up for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. There will be few Ted Cruz Tea Party heroes in the new Senate. Even additional House Republicans are a mixed blessing for these conservatives. New members there were also vetted by the Crossroads gang but more importantly many come from the liberal northeast and from more moderate districts.
This will free establishment House leadership from being beholden to the hard core Tea Party Republican members whose numbers kept Speaker John Boehner from compromising too much with Barack Obama in the last Congress.
Any doubt is resolved by knowing that all of the new Republican Senators have long histories in pragmatic politics with many dispatching more conservative opponents in primaries. A close Boehner ally told the Washington Post that the new House members are all “definitely” in the “constructive category” that will follow the leadership.
They are in charge but does the GOP establishment leadership know what to do with success? Given the record of the two George Bush epitomes of this approach and the miniscule support ratings for Republicans in Congress, one might doubt whether they do.
The Tea Party actually is a latecomer to the ideological warfare for control of the Republican Party. Conservative Stalwarts battled progressive Half-Breeds and Mugwumps as early as the 1880 GOP conventions. Such enmity continued through the 20th century culminating in the battle between conservative rebels under Barry Goldwater capturing the party from establishment leader Nelson Rockefeller in 1964.
By 1980, nominee Ronald Reagan rode a conservative tide to victory in the general election and whose success in governing conservatively for two terms captured the soul of the party, with a revival in 1994 when Newt Gingrich won the House. But it all atrophied during George W. Bush’s establishment reign.
After the decisive Obama electoral wipeout of the Bush years in 2008, the Tea Party movement reached its zenith two years later by returning Republicans to House control. The GOP gained 63 seats in 2010 in the House of Representatives — the largest off-year gain since 1938, gained six seats in the Senate, 680 seats in state legislatures, and held 29 of the 50 governorships. Yet, two years later poor choice of candidates for the Senate and Obama’s reelection as president allowed establishment Republicans to scapegoat the unsophisticated Tea Party activists.
Crossroads then created a mischievously named “Conservative Victory Project” in 2013 composed of the largest financial contributors to the GOP whose purpose was to deny Tea Party victories in primaries and nominate establishmentarians for the Senate in 2014. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business associations and corporations were brought into the movement soon thereafter, concentrating an enormous amount of funds that finally bore its success last week.
The front page headline in the Wall Street Journal the day following the election was “Business Sees Hope for Stalled Agenda.” The establishment was back.
Unfortunately for them, the Senate majority may not last very long. The numbers will be the opposite of this year with Democrats only having to defend 10 seats and Republicans 24. Only one Democrat seems at risk, and that unlikely target is Senate leader Harry Reid.
The small GOP margin today could easily be at risk with weak incumbents Mark Kirk in Illinois, Chuck Grassley in Iowa, Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire, Richard Burr in North Carolina, and Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania — all up in tough states for Republicans.
What will the GOP establishment do about it? How will blue suit business executives rally the troops in 2016? In fact, 2014 was a referendum on President Obama and not the result of establishment money or even good candidates.
In fact, anyone could have won in most of these states as proven by Senators Pat Roberts and Thad Cochran. Roberts had to be brow-beaten by Sen. Mitch McConnell even to run a campaign. These won because they were opposed to Obama not on the basis of pragmatism, campaign smarts or even completing coherent sentences.
Establishment types are all calling for compromise with the president. That certainly would help restore Obama’s credibility whose weakness is the GOP’s only obvious advantage going into 2016.
The Tea Party wants confrontation on bills Obama will have to veto, guaranteeing the Democrats carry the same failed policies into the next election. Which faction actually has the more pragmatic strategy?
Donald Devine is senior scholar at the Fund for American Studies, the author of "America’s Way Back: Reconciling Freedom, Tradition and Constitution," and was Ronald Reagan’s director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management during his first term. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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