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May 06, 2014 1:34 PM Challenging the Republican Establishment Narrative

By Ed Kilgore

It’s heartening that just as the MSM is gearing up for a month of “Republican Establishment Crushes Tea Party and Sets Table For Massive November Victory” talk, dissenting voices are rising about various aspects of this self-satisfied narrative. I’m definitely one of them. But I’d also direct your attention to the authoritative conservative analyst Sean Trende, who, despite his confessed alignment with The Establishment, goes to some lengths today to challenge the idea that Tea Party Excess has been the GOP’s big problem in failed efforts to reconquer the Senate.

Trende makes four distinct arguments: (1) the Establishment/Tea rivalry is in many respects just a continuation of a long factional battle that goes back to the 50s, in which neither side is likely to “win” any time soon; (2) Some Tea candidates for Senate have been as successful as the “Establishment” types they’ve vanquished (viz. Lee and Cruz); (3) an awful lot of Senate losers during the last two cycles have been underwhelming Establishment candidates; and (4) some of the typecasting of various Republican candidates is just plain dubious.

Since Todd Akin was the poster boy for the GOP’s Senate Fail in 2012, Trende’s discussion of his profile is especially interesting:

At the outset, I have a problem with classifying this as a Tea Party loss, unless you define “Tea Party” broadly, as “conservative candidate who harms him- or herself in the general election.”
That primary race pitted Akin, a five-term congressman from the St. Louis suburbs, against businessman John Brunner and former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman. Of these, it is probably hardest to make the case for Akin as the Tea Party candidate. His endorsements included Mike Huckabee, Phyllis Schlafly, Michele Bachmann, Steve King, Jim Jordan and Jeb Hensarling. There are some Tea Party elements there, but it really has as much of a “religious right” profile as a Tea Party profile — in fact, Huckabee has been at loggerheads with many of the anti-government Tea Party groups.
Steelman, on the other hand, had an actual endorsement from the Tea Party Express, as well as from Mike Lee and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. Brunner received endorsements from Sen. Tom Coburn, FreedomWorks, the Chamber of Commerce, and Ron Johnson.
This is reasonably complex, but at the end of the day Akin probably had the least Tea Party-friendly profile of the bunch — 10 years in Washington and endorsements from none of the traditional Tea Party players.
This also wasn’t an election where a clear establishment candidate was upset by an insurgent campaign. At best, the establishment solidified behind Steelman, the Tea Party groups were split between Steelman and Brunner, and Akin snuck up the middle at the last minute. Let’s also remember that Akin ran a quiet, low-profile campaign; while establishment Republicans were fretting over his potential victory, he didn’t show public signs of implosion until after his primary win; the foreseeability of his demise among the actual electorate was pretty low.

The more general point is that the GOP has some ideological problems that can’t simply be offloaded to something called The Tea Party, or vanquished by “Establishment” primary wins. As I’ve argued for years, the differences between the Tea Folk and other Republicans are (with the exception of foreign policy, where there are splits all over the place) are mostly over strategy and tactics, and to some degree rhetoric. Winning a phony civil war won’t solve their problems, and losing it won’t necessarily make much difference, either.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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