Mitch McConnell’s winning team

Mitch McConnell’s winning team
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Politics tends to be a lot more fluid than people give it credit for. Never underestimate the power of just choosing to stop caring about something.

Over the last couple of years, Washington’s dominant political narrative has held that Republicans care a lot about Tea Party primary challenges. Very little else, in fact. Unless GOP politicians tack to the extreme right on absolutely every issue, the story went, they were dooming themselves to face hard-right challengers come re-nomination time, and then ultimately go the way of poor old Senator Bennett in Utah.

This was said to be bad news on two fronts.

For one, it forced Congressional Republicans to embrace an ideological baseline dictated by a powerful, yet small and unlikeable faction of their base — the so-called “minority of the minority,” or the least popular segment of a party that’s not itself terribly popular. Among other things, this resulted in Speaker Boehner elevating the “Hastert Rule,” which basically forbade ever passing legislation with Democratic support, to the level of constitutional law, and the sabotage of popular bills like the post-Sandy Hook gun control measures and the 2013 continuing budget resolution — the latter of which provoked last fall’s government shutdown.

Come election time, meanwhile, Tea Party power led to the rise of several unelectably extreme candidates — your Richard Mourdocks, your Todd Aikens — allowing Republicans to repeatedly snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Though the math isn’t quite as rock-solid as triumphalist liberals often claim, it’s clear at the very least that the GOP would have come a lot closer to winning control of the Senate in 2010 and 2012 had they not run extremist Tea Party people in otherwise winnable races.

But what was to be done? For a long time this seemed like the Gordian Knot of American conservative politics. As the opposition party, the Republicans needed to maintain internal unity to effectively challenge a powerful Democratic machine; a unity that could supposedly only be preserved by letting the coalition’s most fair-weather faction call the shots. Moderate/establishment Republicans clearly perceived their Tea Party colleagues as somewhat radical and irrational, yet the only way you can appease radical and irrational people is on their own radical and irrational terms.

Unless, of course, you decide to just stop caring about them.

Ever since the government shutdown, which proved disastrous for Republican poll numbers, the GOP elite has become increasingly comfortable just calling the Tea Party’s bluff and ramming ahead with whatever needs to be done. Speaker Boehner has now basically abandoned the Hastert Rule; while he only allowed three bills in the 113th Congress to pass with Democratic support, he now lets it happen all the time, most notably with last December’s relatively low-fanfare Paul Ryan-Pat Murray bipartisan budget deal, which Ryan openly (though dishonestly) bragged about being the first bipartisan agreement of its kind since the Reagan years.

Ryan and Murray’s pragmatic short-term fix to America’s long-running budget woes was widely despised by all the Tea Party groups, but Boehner didn’t care. In a famous press conference, he said those people had “lost all credibility” since the shutdown, and were now just “misleading their followers” with idle nonsense. A few months later he then took another once-contentious issue off the table, allowing a “clean” hike to the US debt celling — that is, one without preconditions to defund Obamacare or whatever — to pass with Democratic help in the face of massive Tea Party opposition.

Mitch McConnell, the Senate GOP leader, for his part, has now made it very clear he’s not going to let the upcoming 2014 Congressional midterms see yet another Republican majority slip through his fingers thanks to a bunch of Tea Party radicals ruining everything.

“I think we are going to crush them everywhere,” he said unambiguously in a New York Times interview last week. “I don’t think they are going to have a single nominee anywhere in the country.”

For McConnell, the issue hits close to home — he’s facing a far-right primary challenger of his own in his native Kentucky, backed by the Tea Party-aligned Senate Conservatives Fund — but the concern is national.

The Republicans need only capture six seats to flip the Senate in November, a number that’s conveniently close to the amount of Democrat incumbents who are either vulnerable or retiring. Virtually every Republican senator up for re-election, in contrast, is in a state too red to lose. 2014: the GOP’s “last best chance,” as some have dubbed it.

Yet at the same time, most state Republican parties are not scheduled to hold their nomination elections until late spring, early summer, or in some cases, early fall, meaning we still don’t know exactly who’s going to be facing down many of these weak Dems. What we do know, however, is that practically all of these primary races feature a Tea Party contestant of one stripe or another, and in states like Alaska, North Carolina, and Louisiana the TP people are running in explicit opposition to some popular, moderate local Republican politician. Shades of Christine O’Donnell versus Governor Castle?

About a half-dozen incumbent Republican senators are being challenged by Tea Partiers, too, and while this is generally less relevant, given, as mentioned, that most GOP re-election campaigns this year will be held in very red states, there’s still the slight possibility that primary upsets in places like Maine, Georgia, or possibly even Kentucky could turn safe seats into tossups.

Like never before, 2014 is shaping into an election in which all remaining pretences of peace between the GOP establishment and Tea Party are dropped in favor of all-out civil war. The Republican brain trust simply can’t afford anything less than a total TP defeat this time around, so they’re willing to pay and say and do whatever it takes to get there. It’s a dramatic reversal of the last few years, and a high-risk, top-down strategy that paradoxically risks exacerbating the very populist, far-right resistance it most aspires to destroy.

Republicans have stopped caring about the Tea Party. But when will the Tea Party start caring about them?


  1. Pete Zaitcev

    Actually America cannot afford anything but the total defeat of GOP apparatchiks, but whatever. Keep talking up the liberal talking points, I'm sure a few people will fall for it.

  2. Psudo

    It's nice to see that you have a detailed and nuanced position based on a deep, ponderous analysis of indisputable facts, and that you've chosen to express it with civility and the compassion of a teacher.

  3. Svan

    Incredible drawing and well reasoned article. While I only want disaster for the republican party, I'd really like to get back to the good old days where they still a plausible ideological alternative to more government and not a bunch of self-destructive lunatics.

  4. Psudo

    I like to ask this of people who are nostalgic for the better Republicans of the past: who, specifically, were these better Republicans and when did they run the party?

  5. @TheInvisibleDan

    Svan's comments reminds me of those on the Canadian left who profess nostalgia for the old "moderate" Progressive Conservative Party under such luminaries as Joe Clark and Robert Stanfield. In other words, they like conservatives as long as they're losers, have little or no influence on public policy, and not really that conservative, either.

  6. Bill Stephens

    Although this is only a gubernatorial contest here in Pennsylvania, tea party darling Tom Corbett (who is widely unpopular with the rest of his party) is about to face a challenge in the Republican primary by someone who is even further to the right than he is!

  7. @Cristiona

    That's not the Hastert Rule. It actually has nothing to do with the Democrats at all: the rule was to never bring to vote a measure that didn't have majority Republican support.

  8. Dryhad

    Oh, so it is the "majority of the majority" thing. It amounts to the same thing, though. If Tea Party Congressmen don't support a bill then the only way it passes is if Democrats vote for it. Your wording makes it clear that the rule doesn't forbid truly bipartisan bills, but ultimately the ability of "establishment" Republicans to defy the Tea Party by working with the Democrats is the story here.

  9. Jake_Ackers

    TBH I don't think this is about ideology as much as people think. It's quite simple really. Most moderate Reps have been in power FORRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRever. It's establishment/old guard versus lets have someone who has not been in office 40 years.

    Just run a moderate to conservative like Rubio who is new (in terms of age and time in office). The Club for Growth and the Chamber of Commerce has been backing pro-business non-Tea Party people.

    On another note, I would like to see a preferential voting system. Maybe we the Reps would become the moderate party and maybe a few non crazy libertarians might get elected too.

  10. Dryhad

    I'm interested to hear why you think the Republicans would become a moderate party purely as a result of preferential voting, mainly because the "centre"-right party here in Australia is anything but moderate and yet achieved electoral success last year despite (or, heaven forbid, because of) this.

    Actually in general I have to raise a sceptical brow to any who advocate electoral reform for political ends, not because that's a vaguely underhanded reason for doing it but because I don't see any evidence that it will work. By all means, increase the say the people have in their government; that's just basic democracy. But don't expect the outcome to be any different, especially in the long run.

  11. Jake_Ackers

    Ty for asking. The Libertarian Party will grow naturally (as long as the crazies get pushed out). The far right will go to the Constitution Party or make a Tea Party. At least one major moderate party will emerge. Whether it is full of Con Dems or New England style Reps I'm not sure. Seems dependent on how ideological the Libertarians get.

    AU is diverse but not as much as the US. The UK actually has more than 2. It's pushing on 4. And that is without a preferential voting system. At the very least imagine the situation that happened in Canada and the UK happen in a Congressional system. Assuming its the Libertarians that are the 3rd party. There would definitely be progress on issues. Many Reps would vote with Dems and vice versa on some issues but don't because they are afraid of primary challenges.

    Alaska being an example. Okay Murkowski was a sitting Senator so she had an advantage. Look at Castle in Delaware. Can't win the primary but could of won the general in a preferential voting system. Chris Shay as well in CT. Also that electoral mess that happened in the Colorado Governor race because the Republican wouldn't drop out. Even Rubio v Crist in Florida. Or the classic Bush v Gore scenario.

    Moreover, Libertarians would be competitive in areas were Reps and Dems normally aren't. Thus further forcing the politicians to be a bit more moderate.

    It is not just the preferential voting system. It is that fact we are so diverse as a nation in the US that a 3rd party will force someone to become moderate, if not one party than at least all of politics will shift.

  12. J.J. McCullough

    The 2010 governor's race in Colorado was a good example too, where it came down to Constitution Party vs. Democrat after the popular Tea Party candidate could not win the GOP nomination. Actually, I suspect that already happens in a lot of races where the establishment guy beats a TP guy, we just don't hear about it because TP people don't generally fare well as actual third party candidates. They have to hijack the rest of the Republican coalition / campaign machine.

  13. Dryhad

    Where is your evidence that the US is more politically diverse than Australia? I'm a bit confused by you citing the UK and Canada, both show that multi-party systems can happen under first-past-the-post yet there's not even a hint of it in the US. I find it difficult to believe that any party can go from polling single digits to winning the election purely on the basis of preferences being allowed. There would be an increase in votes for minor parties but not by that much. If there was that much support for the Libertarians or any other party they would already be winning a small number of seats, or at least polling close. If you have evidence of this happening I'd be very interested to see it, I admit my search was only cursory.

    You're certainly right that there are races that would have gone differently if they had been conducted on a preferential system, but my point was that in the big picture this wouldn't have such a predictable effect on the political landscape as you think. I'm not claiming there would be no change, just that it would, at least in the long run, be a politically neutral change.

    You do make the interesting assumption that preferential voting would replace primaries. I'd agree that this would drive both parties to the centre, because suddenly you have the entire electorate voting for the "nominee" rather than just their own party. This isn't really a feature of a preferential voting system, though. Here, the major parties have disincentives for members to run against official nominees, I have to assume that similar disincentives would be introduced if a large number of Murkowskis ran as Independents against the candidates selected by primary. Preferential voting makes it easier for well known Independents, not for all Independents. Not having a major party behind you is still a big hurdle that I think you're underestimating.

  14. Jake_Ackers

    I agree. I don't think Libertarians would win the Senate ever. Maybe the Presidency eventually. The GOP went from a 3rd party to winning the White House in one election cycle. But the Lib't don't need to become a majority party. They just need to get enough seats to piss both sides off.

    You won't start seeing Lib't winning in DC or San Fran. But you would start seeing Lib't win in Alaska and even Washington and Oregon.

    The preferential voting would benefit high profile independents but it isn't for them. It is for moderate who would vote for someone from the other-side (assuming that person is a lib't or a moderate) but don't because of the party label. An overwhelming amount of people only vote Dem because of one or two major issues. Like drugs or gay rights. If a Lib't was running eventually you might see some win in those situations. A lot of one issue voters on the Right as well. Don't get me wrong. It just it seems there are way more Social Lib and Economic Cons aka Lib't than Social Cons and Economic Libs out there. Especially those who are technically Lib't but don't know the term exists.

    I used Canada and UK as an example because if there was a preferential voting system in those countries, there would of been a majority. Whether it be Con as the majority or some other party. Clearly showing a need for that form of system in those countries.

  15. Dryhad

    What I'm saying is the Libertarians won't get enough seats to piss off the major parties. If there were enough Libertarian voters to achieve that then they would already have the capacity to win seats. There are of course people who would vote for minor parties but don't for fear of wasting their vote, but there are not enough of them to make the kind of impact you're talking about. If there were, they wouldn't have any reason to fear wasting their vote because there would actually be enough support for their party to win a three way race.

    As for preferential voting leading to majorities in Canada or the UK, that doesn't make any sense whatsoever. Preferential voting benefits smaller parties (although, again, not to the degree you imagine it will), in the UK it would lead to more votes for the Liberal Democrats, at the expense of Labour and the Tories. Unless you're claiming that the supposed majority would be a Clegg government (in which case I again must argue the effect isn't that strong) I really don't see how it could happen.

    Don't get me wrong, I'm very much in favour of preferential voting and I think it's needed not only for the countries mentioned but for everywhere, it's just hands down more democratic than first-past-the-post. But it's not a panacea for all political woes and you shouldn't expect it to effect a radical change on the political landscape.

  16. Jake_Ackers

    Oh I agree. But I think any little change might be enough. To help us. But yah it is true it won't change much. Lib and Lab still the major parties in AU.

    At the very least 1-5 Senators could keep shifting the majority coalition based on who they caucus with.

  17. Amie Graves

    I have loved reading your discussion on this. Both of you.

    I'm a Canadian and I don't think majority governments are our future at all. I would love a preferential voting system but it doesn't seem to be possible due to opposition. The STV vote here in BC failed. To my dismay.

    I would love to see more party interaction. And more collaboration. Perhaps even more parties. The major party leaders in Canada seem to have complete power over who is able to run for election in their parties. My party favourite for the NDP didn't win the leadership and he campaigned on eliminating that. (Nathan Cullen).

    To me, this means an MP or MLA from a specific party has to toe a national line. Possibly to the detriment of their constituents. If MLAs and MPs in Canada were truly free to reflect the diversity of their communities more people might come to trust the parties. When a conservative is elected in my riding, I feel like I can't go to them with my problems. I'm sure the reverse is true for someone my ideological opposite.

    A more localized political system built on needing support from many parties and not being penalized for voting against party line, but in favour of constituents' interest… I feel like this would be better for all of us.

  18. Brandon

    As always, I enjoy your commentary and the comic itself, but at the same time it feels like you are linking support of the second amendment and belief in individual responsibility vs collectivism (What I'd tie the Ayn Rand dog to) to the tea party itself. While they may or may not support those positions, and I don't have any statistics to back it up, I feel like those positions probably have more supporters that don't necessarily support the extreme right bible thumping crowd, or the ruby ridge types.

    Personally I really wish there was a bigger push for election reform to destroy gerrymandering, and the two party system. My choices should not be either the left, or the right. I should have the ability to vote for a 3rd party(Or 4th), and know that my vote actually has a chance to elect that person or their party. First past the post needs eliminated within the next couple decades, or I won't be too surprised to find the country with a single party. Shame the only way that is going to ever happen is if a 3rd party somehow grabs 51% of the votes, and runs a candidacy based on that. The Democrats and Republicans have a vested interest in keeping things as they are.

  19. Colin Minich

    The real issue is that a good chunk of the young blood belongs to that fringe Tea Party group. Even those that lean on the fence like the ever-lovable Rand Paul attract the younger crowd even if he's only marginally better than his dingbat father. Meanwhile, moderate Republicans are either shrinking in number of observation or are being quieted by the louder, more vitriolic idealists of the TP and elsewhere. It's very frightening what is going on because despite the GOP still showing a great image as a Party of No, the Tea Party would be that same Party of No but looking like it was given a dash of crazy. The Tea Party once upon a time brought up a legit issue of governmental incompetence, but their brand of callous and utterly indiscriminate intransigence became pure anathema to what the damned nation was founded on.


  20. Jake_Ackers

    I agree. We have over 300mil people. We are not going to have the law exactly as we want. Don't people realize you need to take incremental steps toward the laws you won't. Not cram it down people's throats.

  21. Colin Minich

    I see how that can be construed towards the ACA, but it did pass through Congress and after compromise. However, the Tea Party is much akin to a spoiled brat. Their way or the high way.