In GOP Primaries, Establishment Has Kept The Tea Party Quiet

Primary season is in full swing. Early on, it appears that the Republican Party establishment is finally having its way and beating Tea Party challengers with ease.

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People in Nebraska and West Virginia are going to the polls today. In Nebraska, the Republican Senate primary has a familiar dynamic: Tea Party candidates running against Republicans backed by the party establishment.

NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson has been following this year's installment of the battle between the two wings of the GOP.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: The story of this year's Republican primary season is a story about what hasn't happened. No Senate Republican incumbent has been defeated so far. And unlike 2010 and 2012, insurgent candidates with the support of Tea Party groups have been falling short this year. If these primaries were a movie they would be called "The Empire Strikes Back."

Steven Law is president of American Crossroads, the deep-pocketed Republican superPAC.

STEVEN LAW: We realized in the last couple of election cycles we've lost opportunities, because we just simply didn't put our best foot forward in terms of the candidate who was nominated. And so, you've seen a lot of people, including us, get involved in trying to make sure that we get really good candidates, who are conservative and who can also compete in a general election environment.

LIASSON: Thom Tillis, for example. In the battleground state of North Carolina last week with the heavy financial support of Republican establishment groups, Tillis easily beat his Tea Party challengers to win the GOP nomination for Senate.

In Washington, Republican leaders have made no secret of their contempt for the Tea Party. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, facing a Tea Party challenger of his own in next Tuesday's Kentucky primary, has promised to, quote, "crush them everywhere." House speaker John Boehner said the national Tea Party groups had, quote, "lost all credibility."

That's a charge amplified by Brad Dayspring of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

BRAD DAYSPRING: I think some of these groups have a problem whereas they criticizing D.C. constantly but their offices are in D.C., they're of D.C., and they're lining their own pockets with dollars that are intended for candidates.

LIASSON: Matt Kibbe, of FreedomWorks, a group that supports Tea Party candidates, dismisses the criticism from what he calls establishment insiders.

MATT KIBBE: If you look at the issues that are motivating voters, they're absolutely our issues. And a lot of the candidates, including the so-called establishment GOP candidates, are running on our issues.

LIASSON: So if there is a civil war inside the Republican Party, for the moment it seems be confined to Washington D.C., where deep-pocketed groups on both sides are sniping at each other. Outside the Beltway, where Republican primaries are taking place, there's no civil war. Instead there's been a kind of corporate merger. An ordinary voter watching television would have a hard time telling the difference between establishment and Tea Party candidates.

Here's an insurgent sounding ad for Mitch McConnell, in office for almost 30 years. It was paid for by the Chamber of Commerce, the ultimate establishment group.

(SOUNDBITE OF A POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Mitch understands that. He fights Washington for Kentucky.

LIASSON: Today there's a primary in Nebraska, where Sarah Palin, Ted Cruz and groups like FreedomWorks are backing one candidate. Mitch McConnell is backing another. But while that intramural fight is bitter, the stakes are low. In the very red State of Nebraska, the Senate seat will probably stay in Republican hands no matter who wins the primary.

There and elsewhere in GOP primaries, the differences are more about style than substance. Terry Schilling is with the American Principles in Action, a Tea Party ally.

TERRY SCHILLING: In 2010 and 2012, you saw this typical battle between the establishment and the Tea Party. What we're seeing today is not necessarily a battle between the establishment and Tea Party, but both the conservative establishment and the Tea Party are embracing populist issues.

LIASSON: So instead of a Todd Aiken saying dumb things about rape, Schilling says you have Republican candidates across the board embracing bans on late term abortions.

SCHILLING: I would argue that right now what's changed is that we all want a purer party, right? We want a party that stays in line with our principles. But we also want a party that connects with a broad base of voters. The conservative movement and the Tea Party movement and the Republican Party are getting more practical.

LIASSON: Democrats argue even if the Republican establishment is winning primaries they're still nominating candidates that are too conservative to win. That proposition will be tested in November. But no matter what happens then, Matt Kibbe is on safe ground when he describes what the Republican ranks in Congress will look like in January.

KIBBE: I will boldly predict that there will be more members of what I would call the liberty caucus in the Senate and the House.

LIASSON: Ever since the Tea Party emerged on the scene five years ago, it's managed to move the Republican Party slowly but steadily to the right, even if its candidates don't win at the ballot box.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House.

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