Last week was “Super Tuesday,” when primaries were held in multiple states. Wherever tea party groups actively fought against what they called the Republican establishment, the establishment won — final score, 5-0. This set off a flurry of media and blogosphere reaction.
The most common one was summarized by the headline, “Tea Party influence is waning.” Those who saw this in Tuesday’s vote said it was good news for the Republicans, who had lost six seats over the last two election cycles because of unelectable tea party nominees. Ironically, the number of additional seats they need to take control of now is six.
Commentators who blame tea party senators from safe Republican states for the bitterness and acrimony in Washington said it was good news for the country. They suggested that these sitting senators, on seeing their ideological soulmates get swept aside decisively, would now start to rethink the rigidity of their positions.
Others, led by the headline, “What the Media doesn’t get about the Tea Party,” ridiculed both ideas. While they conceded that tea party candidates had lost, they insisted that tea party principles had not. In order to win, they said, every successful establishment nominee had had to move to the right. Every one of them had had to stress his conservative credentials. These commentators insisted that the primaries proved that tea party influence has not only not waned but has taken over the Republican Party.
We won’t know which analysis is right until the election is held and the next Congress convenes. If they do take over the majority, which forecaster Nate Silver now says is a 60 percent probability, what the Republicans do then will be far more telling than any analysis of the meaning of the primary results now. The best place to look for a glimpse of what might happen is Kentucky, where Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, was targeted and heavily attacked by every significant tea party group in the country.
To them, his sins were clear and multiple. Among other things, he had brought too many federal dollars home to the state, cooperated with Democrats to keep the Senate running, brokered a deal to fund the government and openly criticized Sen. Ted Cruz’s effort to shut it down while playing a key role in drafting the agreement that kept it open. As his tea party opponent repeatedly made clear, no number of speeches espousing conservative principles could expunge such a dreadful record.
McConnell did make some conservative speeches — after all, he is a conservative, partisan Republican — but he did not back away from what he had done or promise not to do it again. He stressed the fact that Republicans, if they take control, will need to govern, not just pontificate, if they are going to be trusted with power in the future. He won by 24 points.
That doesn’t sound like a tea party takeover to me.
If Republicans do take control of the Senate next January, McConnell has stated that he will use his power as majority leader to restore “regular order,” the process by which legislation is duly considered and voted on at subcommittee, committee, floor and conference levels. Senators in their first terms have never experienced such a thing, which would put them on the record and make them accountable for their actions.
When he moves to do it, will Republicans back McConnell? Or stand with Cruz, who has publicly stated his disdain for Republican leadership? That’s when we’ll see how much influence the tea party really has.
My guess is that McConnell will win big — again.
Robert Bennett, former U.S. senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company