When Sen. John Cornyn and Rep. Pete Sessions easily fended off primary challengers last night, you just knew there had to be a narrative.
It would be facile, of course, to suggest this implies the tea party is on the ropes (a slate of solid conservative candidates did win elections in Texas last night). More accurately, as Dave Weigel notes, it was “a good night for Texas conservatives; a bad night for grifters.”
And that’s just the point.
The fact that the campaigns of Rep. Steve Stockman and tea party leader Katrina Pierson didn’t catch fire, while other conservatives did, suggests the tea party and the conservative movement has gotten more selective regarding whom they will support. It suggests that gimmickry and national press attention matter less than seriousness and hard work.
(Granted, the establishment outside groups are getting their acts together, too — a fact which complicates my point — but it is clear that many conservatives have quit propping up flawed candidates.)
So what might mean going forward? My guess is it means that serious conservative candidates like Rep. Tom Cotton and Nebraska Sen. candidate Ben Sasse (just to name two) will continue to prosper, while more controversial or flawed candidates (possibly like Matt Bevin and Milton Wolfe) might have reason to worry.
This is not to say the establishment and conservatives have reached a mudus vivendi — or that conservatives are out of the “primarying” incumbents business.
In Idaho, for example, expect moderate Rep. Mike Simpson to receive a vigorous challenge — and deservedly so. Meanwhile, some conservative groups will predictably cling to the Rumsfeldian notion that you “go to war with the army you have — not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”
Flawed candidates will continue to be propped up by some, but the lackluster support for Stockman and Pierson suggests conservatives are doing a better job of vetting candidates than in the past.
This, I would suggest, is a sign of maturity and wisdom.
Let’s consider Pierson, for example. She was endorsed by Sarah Palin and Rafael Cruz (Sen. Ted Cruz’s dad). Now, you could argue that this contradicts my entire premise. But the truth is that a couple of years ago, these sort of endorsements might have sparked massive donations, national interest, and grassroots support. In 2010, Palin’s last-minute endorsement helped propel Christine O’Donnell to a victory over her establishment rival in the 2010 Delaware Republican primary. This time around? Not so much.
So the lesson to learn is that 2014 isn’t 2010. It might, in fact, be better.