After the polls closed last night, it only took a few minutes for Matt Bevin, the Kentucky Tea Party insurgent who was challenging the legendarily ruthless Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, to admit he had lost. Badly. Teary-eyed, the businessman and suspected cockfighting enthusiast conceded defeat shortly after the Associated Press called the race for the incumbent Tuesday night, telling supporters to "take the high road." Then he handed some roses to his sobbing wife and the pair left the stage, thus ending this year’s most contentious and expensive challenge to DC's Republican establishment.
For the Tea Party, it was the beginning of the end. In marquee primary races across the country last night, mainstream candidates crushed their more colorful far-right rivals. Aided by a flood of campaign donations from business groups and industry lobbyists, the establishment took on the conservative movement’s warring factions and won, wresting control away from the party’s right-wing base for the first time since 2009.
The Grand Old Party hopes that its establishment candidates, unlike, say, Sharron Angle (who flamed out in Nevada in 2010) or Todd "Legitimate Rape" Akin, can actually win elections against Democrats. But while dark money helped prevent the Republicans from nominating anyone who would be a complete embarrassment in office, the midterms are bound to be another goat rodeo for the GOP even without the Tea Party.
Take Idaho, which was the real battleground for the establishment's war on the Tea Party. The state has always existed on the fringe of conservative politics, but in the past few years, a coalition of Tea Partiers and Ron Paul libertarians have taken control of the Republican Party apparatus and the results have been predictably extreme: The state party platform now calls for abolishing the Federal Reserve, repealing the 17th amendment (which allows the direct election of US Senators), and nullifying federal laws that "infringe on state sovereignty"—if you're an Idaho Tea Partier, that pretty much means every law ever passed.
Ultimately, Idaho's leading Republican incumbents—including Governor Butch Otter and Representative Mike Simpson—managed to beat back Tea Party challenges on Tuesday. But their victories didn't come without a cost. Establishmentarians like the Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Realtors, and the Defending Main Street Super PAC, spent nearly $2.5 million to defend Simpson, ultimately forcing Tea Party groups to pull back on spending for Simpson's conservative opponent. In the governor's race, Otter narrowly defeated a Tea Party challenge, in part by embracing the fringe with the strange and wonderful Idaho gubernatorial debate. But while the debate (which included a dude who "went to jail for homeschooling" and a gay-rights-supporting biker) was the most entertaining 54 minutes in 21st-century American democracy, it also meant that Otter had to spend the rest of the campaign talking about killing (or not killing) wolves.
The political toll of GOP’s civil was also evident Georgia, where a seven-way Republican Senate primary devolved into a nasty circular firing squad, with candidates racing to see who could get furthest to the right. The campaign is now going into a runoff between slick-talking businessman David Perdue and Representative Jack Kingston. Both candidates are clearly more palatable than their Tea Party-backed primary opponents—including the Akinesque congressmen Paul Broun and Phil Gingrey. But it’s still Georgia we’re talking about, so differences in pro-life, pro-gun, anti-Obama orthodoxy tend to be more of degree than substance. Kingston, for example, thinks poor children should perform janitorial work in exchange for free school lunches. Perdue, meanwhile, has a tendency to come off as a huge dick, like when he dismissed challenger Karen Handel as “a high school graduate” who couldn’t understand complex policy issues. The two candidates have already spent $5 million attacking one another, and it’s unlikely that either emerges from the coming two-month runoff campaign unscathed.
And then there's the problem of the alleged stalker running for Senate in Oregon. Heading into Tuesday’s primary, pediatric neurosurgeon Monica Wehby was billed as the new face of a newer, softer Republican Party—a pro-choice, anti-Obamacare conservative who the left couldn’t accuse of hating women and babies. Establishment leaders like McConnell, Mitt Romney, and John McCain fell over each other to endorse her. But in all the excitement over a lady Republican who could win statewide office in the land of Portlandia, no one vetted Wehby as thoroughly as they should have. If they had, they might have learned, as Politico reported last weekend, that she “was accused by her ex-boyfriend last year of ‘stalking’ him, entering his home without his permission, and ‘harassing’ his employees,” according to a police report. A second article, from The Oregonian, showed that Wehby was also accused by her ex-husband of harassment during their 2007 divorce proceedings.
To make matters weirder, it turns out that the ex-boyfriend has also donated money to a super PAC that has been running ads against Wehby’s primary opponent. That group, the oddly named If He Votes Like That in Salem Imagine What He Will Do in Congress, was created by the wealthy Nevada donor Loren Parks, a hypnosis hobbyist who has posted a series of YouTube videos on how hypnosis can help treat MS, cancer, “parents divorce trauma,” and “women’s sexual guilt,” among other afflictions.
Despite the high-profile slow-motion disasters in these select races, the Republicans could still win a majority in the Senate. But don’t mistake the establishment’s victories Tuesday as an end to the GOP’s internecine wars. The Tea Party’s influence may be diminished, at least for now, but the right-wing rage and alienation that drove the movement are still an underlying force in the conservative movement, one that exerts a powerful gravitational pull toward the fringe.
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