Last night's GOP Senate primary in North Carolina was billed as a surrogate battle in the Republican Civil War between the establishment and grassroots. But it ended up being more of a surrender than a battle. And since establishment candidate Thom Tillis easily trounced his two grassroots conservative opponents, it would be easy to declare today that the tea party is toast.
The truth is probably more complicated than that. In fact, if the tea party didn't show up, or put up much of a fight, it might be because they already won the war. I'll let The Atlantic's Molly Ball explain:
[I]f Tillis represented the Republican establishment — something he denies, of course; it is not a label anyone embraces — he also represents the party's new, post-Tea Party mainstream. He was endorsed by National Right to Life and the National Rifle Association. As House speaker during a time when Republicans took over North Carolina's government for the first time since 1896, he oversaw a dramatic slate of rightward policies, from tax cuts to voter ID, that he terms a "conservative revolution."
It was hard for opponents to paint Tillis as a liberal when actual liberals were picketing his initiatives on the steps of the statehouse in Raleigh on a regular basis. If this race is any indication, the "Republican civil war" storyline so beloved of pundits in recent years may have to be retired... [The Atlantic]
The theory goes like this: In the beginning, the GOP establishment had grown old and fat and corrupt, and the tea party bench was full of young and talented and pure candidates. And so, when quality candidates like former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio and former Rep. and Club for Growth head Pat Toomey challenged moderate GOP candidates like then-Gov. Charlie Crist (Fla.) and then-Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) — both of whom later became Democrats — it was like picking low-hanging fruit.
But there are only so many Rubios and Toomeys (and only so many Crists and Specters). So it gets increasingly harder to replicate this success. The well of quality tea party candidates goes dry, and eventually, you're scraping the bottom. What's more, the early victories send a message to the old guard that they'd better clean up their act.
And so, the tea party message gets co-opted by the establishment — which, for tea party conservatives, ought to be cause for celebration; incumbents who want to survive either get religion, or get ousted.
If the tea party is having a bad year, it's only because they are a victim of their own success.