The prevailing narrative for Tuesday night’s GOP primary results was written weeks ago: 2014 will not be another field of dreams for Tea Party insurgents. Wrapping a candidacy in the flag of “Don’t Tread on Me” is not the winning tactic it was in many Republican contests two and four years earlier.
But that scarcely means that Washington or its insiders have been rehabilitated in voters’ eyes or that the era of outsider candidates has passed. In fact, in Tuesday’s major events, being a newcomer was still a pretty good ticket. It just didn’t need to have been punched by Sarah Palin or Ted Cruz.
The worst news for the Tea Party folks was Mitch McConnell’s laugher of a win in Kentucky, where he dismissed Tea Party hero Matt Bevin by a 2-to-1 margin. If there was one establishment head that was coveted as a trophy this year, it was McConnell’s, as Senate minority leader and a 30-year Senate fixture who at times has made deals with the likes of Harry Reid and Joe Biden.
But Tuesday brought a hard crash for the once ebullient Bevin, who raised millions only to see McConnell spend several times as much. Bevin stumbled out of the gate and kept on stumbling through an amateurish campaign, a devastating disappointment for the constellation of conservative populists and economic hard-liners that had formed around him.
No incumbent was running in Georgia, where Saxby Chambliss opted not to return to the Senate. A long line formed on the right and the Tea Party had several favored entries. But none of these came close to businessman David Perdue, a first-time candidate, who ran as “Mr. Outsider” and wound up on top. Joining him in a July runoff will be Rep. Jack Kingston, who was probably the Tea Party’s second least favorite person in the field. Perdue is likely to be the early favorite in the runoff, casting Kingston’s 11 terms in Congress as a fatal liability.
Finally, in Oregon, pediatric neurosurgeon Monica Wehby was chosen over the more conservative state legislator Jason Conger. Wehby had been the choice of established Republicans in-state and nationally, a first-time candidate with no voting record. She survived the late emergence of allegations of stalking complaints filed by an ex-boyfriend and her ex-husband, and she overcame the recent preference of the GOP voter base for far more doctrinaire social conservatism.
So it’s clear, as in earlier primaries in Texas, North Carolina and Ohio, this will not be another 2010 or 2012, when upstarts embarrassed the GOP’s conventional favorites in primary after primary. In both those years, these untested candidates usually fared poorly in November, costing the party the seats it needed to regain the Senate majority.
Among Democrats, first-time candidates were also featured. Tom Wolf, a businessman who hadn’t had time for politics before, totally eclipsed a field of those who had. Wolf looked formidable throughout the campaign and will be favored over weak incumbent Republican Tom Corbett in the fall.
As for the marquee Democratic Senate races this week, women won in Georgia and Kentucky. On another night, under another set of circumstances, Alison Lundergan Grimes and Michelle Nunn might have dominated the national conversation.
They won in the only two states where Republican-held seats look at all vulnerable this year, and both are daughters of men who were famous statewide political figures back when Democrats ruled these states. Lundergan’s father was state party chairman; Nunn’s father served 24 years in the U.S. Senate. The daughters’ day has now arrived; they each won nomination in a walk, and both look strong enough to put in play states that have become increasingly Republican in recent decades.
Yet in the end, these two women were almost afterthoughts to the telling contests on the GOP side in their states. They will have another chance to seize the winner’s circle in the fall, but they will need to run near-perfect campaigns and hope they can remind older voters of an era when just about everybody thought themselves Democrats.
This week, though — and throughout the 2014 midterm cycle — the Senate story line is about the Republicans. They need to net just six seats to regain the majority. They have a gift scenario of five Democratic incumbents retiring instead of running for new terms they all might well have won. Moreover, the GOP can target four more seats in states where Obama lost decisively in 2012. And for sprinkles on top, they have strong party-unifying candidates lined up to challenge Democratic incumbents in three blue states that had once looked more or less secure.
Any or, in theory, all of these dozen seats could fall to the GOP this year if the current Republican wave becomes a tsunami on the model of 2010 or 1994 or 1980. Democrats had looked for comfort in the brighter outlook for Obamacare and the popularity of Democratic issues such as the minimum wage and immigration reform. But their main hope had been that once again the GOP would blow several winnable races by nominating candidates at the far end of their ideo-spectrum.
So far at least, that is not happening. But the rise of outsider candidates continues apace, and in both parties.