Six Lessons From the Year’s First Big Primary Night

How to read the tea leaves for Mitch McConnell, the Tea Party, and much more.

Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and his wife Elaine Chao arrive for a victory celebration following the early results of the state Republican primary.
Mitch McConnell celebrates with wife Elaine Chao following his victory in the state Republican primary May 20, 2014, in Louisville, Kentucky.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

The official storyline of Tuesday’s primary is the one our media’s collective unconscious settled on weeks ago. “Tea Party Challengers Fall Short in Primaries,” reports USA Today. “Republicans Keep Tea Party Wing at Bay in Primary Races,” reports the Los Angeles Times. “Tea Party Losses Tilt Republican Split to Business Gain,” reports Bloomberg, confusingly.

It’s just more complicated than that.

Mitch McConnell Didn’t Win Easy … On July 24, 2013, a businessman and novice candidate named Matt Bevin announced that he’d challenge Sen. Mitch McConnell in the Republican primary. Almost immediately, the polling group Wenzel Strategies returned from the field with numbers—McConnell was at 59 percent to Bevin’s 20 percent. This represented more than double the biggest lead McConnell’s old ally Trey Grayson ever posted over Sen. Rand Paul, when the libertarian Muad’Dib challenged Grayson and “the establishment” in 2010.*

Tuesday night, after untold articles making fun of Bevin’s slapstick campaign (it took him weeks—weeks—to give a straight answer on whether he endorsed legal cockfighting), and more articles analyzing McConnell’s change-to-win victory plan, the Senate minority leader triumphed. He took 60 percent of the vote, no more than he’d been earning the day the primary began. A win is a win is a win, but that’s remarkably weak. I can find no example of a modern-era Senate party leader—Harry Reid, Tom Daschle, Trent Lott, George Mitchell, and so on—facing a challenge like that. McConnell survived it by hiring Ron and Rand Paul’s own campaign manager, who admitted on tape that he was “holding [his] nose” and working for McConnell until the Paul Restoration; he survived by spending at least $11 million.

… but “the Tea Party” Has Nothing Left to Run On. The defining theme of Bevin’s campaign was a combination of fantasy and lying. McConnell, according to Bevin, was “not a conservative” and had done “nothing” to impede Barack Obama’s march to socialism. According to the Senate Conservatives Fund, which Team McConnell has spent the past day mocking relentlessly, McConnell was a flat-out “liberal.”

Thirty-odd percent of Kentucky’s Republican primary voters went along with this, but it was never credible.* Neither was the defeated and unlamented Rep. Steve Stockman’s screeching insistence that Texas Sen. John Cornyn was a liberal. Among Stockman’s evidence was Cornyn’s mere 87 percent score from the Club for Growth and 86 percent score from Heritage Action. On Earth, primary voters viewed those as pretty good scores. There was absolutely zero consequence for McConnell and Cornyn backing a debt limit increase this year, as they had already done so in the past, and they had done nothing else to separate themselves from their base. Speaking of that:

The Chamber of Commerce Can Win, but It Can’t Influence. Credit where due: It took the Chamber of Commerce only four years and two election cycles to figure out that it could thwart unelectable conservatives in primaries if it spent some money. The resulting arms race has been costly—according to Politico, the cost of defending an incumbent Republican senator has risen from $1.1 million in 2002 to $2.8 million today.

Yet in defeat, the Tea Party has changed what the GOP stands for. A Bush Republican in 2008 could get behind TARP, an auto bailout, immigration reform, and stimulus spending. These were all priorities supported by the chamber. Just this month, the chamber’s president, Tom Donohue, warned Republicans that they “shouldn’t bother” to field a 2016 candidate if they didn’t join the chamber on immigration reform. Let’s check—what do the candidates bailed out by the chamber think of immigration reform? Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson?

Giving amnesty to those who have broken our nation’s immigration laws would undermine the policies that were established to regulate our borders and provide an orderly process of evaluating applications for citizenship.

Georgia Rep. Jack Kingston?

Jack joined grassroots activists from across the country this morning in a rally against amnesty in the immigration bills moving through Congress. Jack believes we must enforce the laws we already have on the books and would vote against the “Gang of 8” proposal making its way through the Senate.

At least Mitch McConnell took the more-in-sorrow-than-anger approach in his vote against the Senate’s immigration bill. The Chamber of Commerce, for now, demands nothing of candidates other than electability.

The Tea Party Can Win When It Has a Plan and the Other Side Doesn’t. In his sad round of post-defeat interviews, Club for Growth President Chris Chocola explained that the group can no longer “sneak up on people.” But what about when it can sneak up on people?

Republicans took over the Arkansas legislature in 2012, with a big assist from the Romney-Ryan ticket and from third-party donors. One result: a “private option” for Medicaid expansion, one that ended up covering thousands of poor people but had to be renewed annually. Conservatives ran hard against the option Tuesday, with mixed-to-positive results. State Sen. Bruce Holland, a private option backer, lost his primary by 10 points; state Sen. Bill Sample won his by 10. “I think this is an expansion of Obamacare into Arkansas,” nursing home owner Scott Flippo told the Arkansas Times, explaining why he was challenging pro-expansion state Rep. John Burris for a state Senate seat. As of right now, only 75 votes separate Flippo and Burris, and the race has not been called.

A Republican Tracker Won an Election and a Clinton-in-Law Didn’t. One year ago Grant Hodges was a fresh-scrubbed video hit man for America Rising, following Sen. Mark Pryor to his events, waiting and hoping for gaffes. As of Tuesday, Hodges, age 23, is probably headed to the Arkansas House of Representatives, having won the Republican primary for a solid Republican seat. I’m unaware of anyone else rising so quickly from one of the most thankless jobs in politics.

Meanwhile, in a special schadenfreude gift to Republicans, former Rep. Marjorie Margolies failed to win a primary that would have returned her to Congress 22 years after her deciding vote for Bill Clinton’s tax increase—the one that was supposed to wreck the economy, but didn’t—brought her down. Margolies’ son later married Chelsea Clinton; even outlets that thought themselves above tabloid coverage could not resist covering a Hillary fundraiser (outside the district) and a Bill endorsement. What does it mean, that Margolies lost by 14 points? Honestly, not much, given that she won the part of the district she used to represent and got wiped out in the Philadelphia area that was added to the district by a gerrymander. And one more thing:

Progressive insurgents are still faring worse than the Tea Party. Margolies’ reliance on the Clinton name and her 1993 vote was pilloried by state Sen. Daylin Leach. He ran as Pennsylvania’s “progressive champion,” coming to the race with the backing of MoveOn, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, and Democracy for America. “Alan Grayson and Elizabeth Warren have proven that bold progressives in Congress can change the national conversation,” explained the PCCC’s Adam Green in January. “Daylin is one of those game changers.”

Or not. Leach lost badly, winning 17 percent of the vote, barely enough for third place in a four-way race. The PCCC, et al. have had some luck knocking off wayward Democrats, sure. But in Kentucky and Georgia, national Democrats nominated the centrist Senate candidates they wanted with no pressure from the left. The Democratic Party, a coalition of interest groups and diverse ethnic constituencies, is not as vulnerable to disruptive change-by-primary as the GOP is.

*Correction, May 27, 2014: This article originally misspelled Muad’Dib. It also misstated that roughly 30 percent of Kentuckians voted for Matt Bevin. Roughly 30 percent of Republican primary voters in Kentucky voted for him. (Return.)