-- The 2010 rise of the Tea Party is a well-worn political story by now. Driven by voter anger over the TARP bailout, Obamacare and ongoing distaste with business as usual inside the beltway, a new crop of legislators was swept in. The result was that the American people were able to watch the education of a Congress in real time.
The past four years of start-and-stop legislating, punctuated by flare ups between Republican leadership and its defiant new class provided no small amount of frustration, and embarrassment for the GOP, climaxing in last year's government shutdown. Yet as the Affordable Care Act proves to be perhaps even worse than advertised and the Obama Administration flounders amidst one management failure after another, there's reason to believe that some of the growing pains this Congress experienced may have been worth it.
With the last two election cycles as a backdrop, the early narrative this year was that there was a showdown looming between the traditional party infrastructure and groups like Heritage Action, Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund. Both Democrats and some media outlets were licking their chops, prepared for an all out civil war. However, a funny thing happened on the way to the legacy defining battle: the Tea Party learned to play ball, and neither side took the bait.
If you needed evidence of a smarter, wiser Tea Party, look no further than last night, when leading conservative commentator Erick Erickson urged his followers on Red State to support Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in light of his primary victory. Further, the Senate Conservatives Fund, long a thorn in the Republican leader's side also urged their supporters to support McConnell. To an outsider, this may appear to be simply smart politics. However, it illustrates the fact that this is a movement maturing and understanding how to survive as a sustainable force – a mixed blessing for Republicans.
On the one hand, a smarter Tea Party will avoid putting candidates who are unprepared for the spotlight on the national stage. Paul Broun's loss in Georgia last night is a good illustration of how voters are beginning to realize the difference between an impassioned leader from outside the status quo and an ideologue who is utterly unelectable. That isn't to say that these groups won't attempt to shake up the status quo, as Senator Thad Cochran is currently learning – but as ABC contributor Matthew Dowd pointed out, the Tea Party has changed the political game permanently.
The conservative movement and Tea Party will always be at its best when nudging the GOP to remain solidly committed to its principles of a smaller government, strong national defense and personal responsibility. The check and balance of the Tea Party and the establishment could be a powerful tool for a party still finding its way back to national prominence, but it will take a continued effort from both sides to avoid antagonizing one another and focusing on the job at hand. If they are successful, with 2014 trends increasingly in Republicans favor, Democrats should be even more worried about a party focusing on good candidates, solid electoral infrastructure and ultimately, victory in November.
Joe Brettell is a former Capitol Hill aide and now a Republican public relations consultant. On Twitter – @joebrettell
Opinions expressed in this column do not reflect the views of ABC News.