5 Lessons Learned From Tuesday’s Primaries

May 21, 2014 7:32am

Six states held primaries on Tuesday — Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, Oregon, and Pennsylvania — in what turned out to be a Super Tuesday “lite” of the 2014 midterm election cycle.

Here are our top takeaways from the key contests:

1. The Tea Party is Losing the Battles

After riding huge successes in the 2010 and 2012 primary seasons, tea party activists saw a fertile map this year, with hopes of targeting incumbent Republicans in states including South Carolina, Kansas, Tennessee, and — the big one, with the biggest name attached — Kentucky, home to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. With Matt Bevin’s crushing loss to McConnell, on the heels of smaller tea party failures in North Carolina and Texas, the major tea party-aligned groups are whiffing. Mississippi looms as the only thing standing between those groups and a primary-season oh-fer. It suggests that the major groups are overreaching in who they’re targeting — and that Republican primary voters are searching for electable candidates over ideological purity. The era of Christine O’Donnell, Sharron Angle, Richard Mourdock and Ken Buck could be over.

2. The Tea Party is Winning the War

McConnell’s victory is interesting for how it was sealed. He recognized the challenge on his right early. Then he did his best to both de-legitimize Bevin and co-opt the forces that made the thought of Bevin’s candidacy credible in the first place. He snagged the early endorsement of Kentucky’s junior senator, Rand Paul – whose surprise 2010 primary victory heralded the arrival of the tea party. And McConnell led Senate Republicans in a way that tea partiers could have minimal complaint about, even through the government shutdown that the GOP establishment saw as misguided from the start. Paul was still on board enough to introduce McConnell, by video, at his primary night victory event Tuesday night. Incumbent Republicans are surviving not by taking on the tea party but by bending toward the tea party’s will. It’s been labeled “Cruz control,” and it’s a path to survival. Critics of Bevin’s failed bid are saying he didn’t do much to distinguish himself from McConnell. In truth, McConnell didn’t give him much space.

3. The Clintons are Beatable

The evening’s big shocker was the lopsided loss suffered by Marjorie Margolies, who had the full weight of the Clinton political machine behind her as she tried to recapture a House race in Pennsylvania. Margolies would have been the favorite in the race even if her son hadn’t married Chelsea. The marriage helped get her a Bill Clinton appearance and campaign ad, and even Hillary Clinton’s sole political appearance of 2014 thus far. None of that mattered, though, when a 37-year-old underfunded state legislator named Brendan Boyle caught a late wave with campaign ads featuring his janitor father. It’s a stretch to equate Boyle with any other upstart politicians who caught the Clinton team off-guard. But it’s a reminder that, even in a reliably Democratic district, voters aren’t necessarily ready to follow the Clintons’ lead.

4. Mitch McConnell is a Vicious Campaigner

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has a long history of being a ruthless campaigner and this primary was no departure. McConnell and his team saw possible flaws in opponent Matt Bevin’s background and pounced, hammering him nonstop. They were able to brand him as “Bailout Bevin,” whether the story behind it was as easy as a nickname or not. And look at the money spent. Outside tea party groups including chief McConnell irritator Senate Conservatives Fund, the Madison Project and others poured in over $1 million dollars. Bevin’s campaign spent $3.3 million, $1 million of that from his personal fortune. But it just can’t compare to McConnell’s spending. McConnell has raised over $21 million, spending over $11 million so far, making it clear that a win just wasn’t enough. Bevin had to be crushed. And he at times seemed surprised about how nasty the race had become, something that made him seem whiny. McConnell’s Democratic opponent Alison Lundergan Grimes — who was born into a politically connected family — is under no illusions and this primary will make the general election brawl look like two kids in a sandbox.

5. Primaries Can Hurt

Does the old saying — “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” — hold true for political primaries? In his victory speech last night, Mitch McConnell said that his primary contest with Matt Bevin in Kentcuky had made him a “stronger candidate.” That may be the case. Across the country in Oregon — despite days of revelations about her personal life, Monica Wehby, won the state’s Republican primary for U.S. Senate. Oregon is a vote by mail state so it’s possible she won before the embarrassing stories came to light. She won handily over opponent, Jason Conger. But this past week’s news about harassment of her ex-husband, a messy divorce and custody battles may haunt her. Although she turned a sleeper of a race into one that garnered national headlines, she goes into the general election with incumbent Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley wounded.

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