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And the Winner of the GOP’s Civil War Primary Is…Part II

Simpson was a top target this cycle. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Simpson was a top target this cycle. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Three and a half months ago, I wrote about the state of the fight between the Republican establishment’s pragmatic conservative candidates and tea party/libertarian/anti-establishment conservatives.  

I concluded the results were mixed and it was too early to call a winner, though I also noted, “it’s already clear that the pragmatist conservatives have stopped the anti-establishment’s electoral momentum.”  

Now that this cycle’s version of the fight is almost over, it’s time for a final assessment. There was no knockout or TKO, but pragmatic conservatives won a clear and convincing decision on points.  

Anti-establishment conservatives will point to Ben Sasse in Nebraska and Tom Cotton in Arkansas to argue that their allies made it to the general election and will win in November, and they can cite plenty of House races where tea party and libertarian types are locks to be victorious in the fall.  

But in races where the GOP establishment made a stand, few anti-establishment types proved successful.  

Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson, North Carolina Senate hopeful Thom Tillis, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell all won competitive primaries against insurgents. Tillis and Graham also avoided runoffs.  

In the nastiest primary, Mississippi’s Thad Cochran defeat of Chris McDaniel in the runoff was stunning, considering the normal dynamic of those kinds of contests. The six-term incumbent never would have succeeded without the help of establishment strategists and operatives, both in the state and nationally.  

Long shot anti-establishment primary challenges against Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts and Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander also fell short. And while Rep. Jack Kingston’s loss in the Georgia GOP Senate runoff was a defeat for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, anti-establishment conservatives in the Peach State didn’t care for Kingston or the party’s eventual nominee, David Perdue.  

In Oklahoma, Rep. James Lankford, a conservative who has worked with his party’s House leadership rather than against it, defeated former Oklahoma Speaker T.W. Shannon. Shannon had been endorsed by Sarah Palin, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and the Senate Conservatives Fund. Cruz even did a TV spot for Shannon.
Unlike the past two cycles, when Republican primary voters sent Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell, Colorado’s Ken Buck, Nevada’s Sharron Angle and, eventually, Indiana’s Richard Mourdock to slaughter in general elections, this time GOP primary voters stuck with safer choices, nominating Senate candidates who had the backing of the party’s establishment.  

But while the pragmatists fared well in high-profile contests where the establishment invested heavily, anti-establishment conservative candidates won plenty of House primaries and took an uncomfortably large percentage of the vote in many Senate contests they lost.  

Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and Georgia Rep. Paul Broun won’t be returning to the next Congress, but freshmen such as Georgia’s Barry Loudermilk and Jody Hice , Alabama’s Gary Palmer , Wisconsin’s Glenn Grothman and Minnesota’s Tom Emmer will join a core of anti-establishment conservatives who already make it difficult for the GOP House leadership.  

And while pragmatic, pro-business Republicans certainly have the right to be relieved that they swept Senate primaries, they should not forget that Chris McDaniel drew just under half of the runoff vote, Milton Wolf drew 41 percent of the vote against Roberts and Joe Carr drew almost 41 percent against incumbent Alexander.  

The not inconsequential showings by deeply flawed candidates like McDaniel, Wolf and Carr confirm what we all know: the GOP is at war with itself, and that won’t end in November, no matter how well the party does in the midterm elections.  

In fact, that division certainly will play out over the next two years, as Republican presidential hopefuls maneuver through the primary and caucus process and compete for their party’s presidential nomination.  

National anti-establishment groups in the coalition ought to be disappointed that they failed to take out even one targeted incumbent (national groups played no role in the defeat of then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor).  

But those groups, which include the Club for Growth and Senate Conservatives Fund, are unlikely to simply end their warfare against the establishment — especially when they can point to successes (which they say include Nebraska and Arkansas) and near-misses. And if Tillis or McConnell lose in November, you can bet anti-establishment groups will argue that their preferred candidates would have won those contests.  

So, the end of this cycle’s primaries marks the end of one battle, not the entire war. And at some point, that’s once again likely to help Democrats.  

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