Win or lose, the outcome of this election is on the GOP establishment
There's no blaming the Tea Party if the party falls short in November
Are the pollsters just trolling us pundits now? Just as a consensus emerged this summer that Republicans were probably going to capture the Senate, a new round of polling was released showing a Democratic rebound in several key races. But the new received wisdom that Democrats were probably going to hold the Senate barely had time to harden before polls emerged that were more favorable to Republicans. Now the prognosticators give the GOP a better-than-even shot of seizing the Senate.
Despite the pendulum-like conventional wisdom on which party will control the Senate come 2015, at least a couple things are abundantly clear. First, Republicans will gain Senate seats in November. And secondly, this GOP-friendly election cycle rests on the Republican establishment, not the Tea Party.
This isn't 2010. Unmistakably, in essentially all the competitive Senate races, the party leadership has gotten the nominees it wanted.
Mitch McConnell vowed the party would "crush" the Senate Conservatives Fund's candidates everywhere. He certainly crushed his own primary challenger, Matt Bevin. Lindsey Graham flattened a field of upstart conservatives in South Carolina. Thom Tillis in North Carolina similarly avoided even a runoff against his main Tea Party rival, Greg Brannon.
The list goes on: Pat Roberts easily dispatched Milton Wolf in Kansas. Scott Brown won his primary in New Hampshire. Establishment Republicans got their man in David Perdue in Georgia. James Lankford won in Oklahoma.
In Mississippi, Thad Cochran did end up having to fight conservative challenger Chris McDaniel in a runoff after actually winning fewer votes in the first round of balloting. But Cochran got the majority when it counted. And although his efforts to turn out traditionally Democratic constituencies and some controversial attack ads riled conservatives, it doesn't seem to have hurt the longtime incumbent in the general election polling.
Across the country, the GOP establishment roared back to life and got its way in every Senate race that mattered. And without pesky Tea Party candidates, Republicans should be on their way to a Senate majority — right? Well, it's not that simple.
The Tea Party's reputation for costing Republicans Senate seats is not entirely undeserved (looking at you Sharron Angle and Christine O'Donnell), though in both 2010 and 2012, the Tea Party had plenty of general election victories, too (Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Mike Lee...).
Establishment-backed Republicans have lost their share of winnable Senate races, too. Think Rick Berg in North Dakota, Denny Rehberg in Montana, George Allen in Virginia, and Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin.
Moreover, the two biggest Tea Party flops — O'Donnell in Delaware and Angle in Nevada — only won their primaries after the establishment frontrunners blew significant leads.
Especially in the 2010 Nevada Senate race, that means the establishment candidate probably wouldn't have been the November shoo-in many assumed.
All of this is to say that there is no one faction of the party that is to blame for the GOP's longstanding difficulty in knocking off Mary Landrieu in Louisiana or keeping Kay Hagan's North Carolina Senate seat securely in the Republican column. Abandoning Tea Party candidates in favor of "safe" establishment picks isn't always a winning trade-off.
Indeed, it's ironic that the GOP-held Senate seat Republicans are now most in danger of losing is Pat Roberts' in Kansas. That's not to say the Tea Party-backed Wolf would have been a stronger candidate or that any establishment miscalculation necessarily led to the Democrat withdrawing and giving a liberal-leaning independent a cleaner shot at the incumbent. But it is an example of how the Republican establishment isn't exactly infallible.
And the next most vulnerable Republican incumbent? Mitch McConnell, Senate minority leader and Tea Party slayer.
In recent cycles, Republicans have failed to lock down the competitive Senate races they need to win. That is the difference between being in the majority or minority. And both the Tea Party and the establishment are to blame.
That won't be true this year. If the GOP can't capitalize on Barack Obama's anemic approval ratings to achieve a Senate majority in a GOP-friendly year, it will be on the establishment.
If Republicans retake the Senate, it will certainly be a feather in the establishment's cap. But if they don't, they will have no one to blame but themselves.