by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
The GOP may well be coming together, not coming apart. Both wings of the party are, in fits and starts, converging on a new synthesis.
The tea parties have almost since their inception been attacking the party establishment for not standing for anything, and the establishment has been complaining for nearly as long that tea-party candidates are not ready for prime time. This primary season, each side seems to be learning the other’s lesson.
The candidate who best encapsulates the possible synthesis of the two wings is Ben Sasse, the college president who stormed out of nowhere to win the Republican nomination for the Senate in Nebraska. Sasse had the support of tea-party groups and campaigned on a full-throated anti-Obamacare and anti-Washington message. Yet he was a former Bush official who didn’t scare anyone, and he also talked about a governing agenda. He won a resounding victory over candidates who had either more establishment backing or more moderate records.
Sasse’s consultants wrote a shrewd memo on the meaning of his victory. “In the last two cycles,” they wrote, “we saw what happened when anti-establishment candidates with questionable backgrounds or poor campaign skills were nominated in several states. In 2012, other states showed what happened when the establishment worked to manipulate the system to put forward equally flawed candidates who also fared poorly in General Elections in 2012.”
It isn’t enough, they argued, for tea partiers to support conservative candidates. “We must also nominate,” they urged, “candidates who have substantial credibility as candidates, can articulate a vision of what they believe, can propose real solutions to problems, and don’t make significant mistakes on the campaign trail. We need conservative candidates, but they must also be skilled candidates in order to win.”
The marquee “establishment” victories this year in Kentucky, North Carolina, and Oklahoma have reflected the flip side of this coin. It’s not enough simply to be “electable,” or the longtime incumbent. Candidates who make the case that they will fight for conservative ideas, and not just serve time, can win tea-party support.