NEW ORLEANS — Tea party thunder fills the Hilton Riverside ballroom with denunciations of President Barack Obama and criticism of congressional Republicans for not being tough enough on him. The atmosphere has the energetic but hostile tone that helped propel conservatives to success in 2010.
Yet outside of this hermetic setting, where the Republican Leadership Conference was meeting this weekend, the political reality was sharply different: Incumbents are fending off tea party challengers in primary after primary, and the establishment is reasserting itself as the party’s center of gravity.
The ultimate test of its strength will come Tuesday in Mississippi, where Sen. Thad Cochran, a 76-year-old master of pork-barrel spending who is seeking a seventh term, will face a challenge from state Sen. Chris McDaniel, who has attracted support from Sarah Palin, Rick Santorum and an array of conservative groups.
After the Mississippi results are in, tea party-aligned forces will have little opportunity to upend mainline Republicans, or even throw them much of a scare.
That 2014 has been the year that the establishment struck back – preparing and financing its candidates with a new determination and focus – is evident in its success.
That may prove to have been the easy part. Republicans on both sides of the internal divide are now looking at the impact the primary season will have on politics and governance as the party seeks to build on its House majority and take control of the Senate this year and win back the White House in 2016.
Room to maneuver
Emboldened by their success, establishment Republicans are using tough language about the party’s more conservative groups. They are suggesting that the federal government shutdown last fall – led by hard-liners like Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas – and this year’s primary results have staggered the organizations claiming the tea party mantle.
“This is a bunch of out-of-state political gunslingers who have crowned themselves as the leaders of tea party Republicanism and are raising money in the name of a more conservative party and spending it all attacking Republicans,” former Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi said in an interview at the meeting here.
“If in 2016 we don’t have these people raising millions of Republican dollars and using it to attack Republicans, then we'll be stronger against the Democrats for president and for keeping the House and for hopefully keeping the Senate,” said Barbour, who was one of the few speakers at the meeting to urge party unity.
The most significant effect of the party turnabout could take place well before 2016, though. If Republicans now in office conclude that tea party pressure is no longer a political threat, they may be more willing to face down the right on issues like an overhaul of immigration laws.
“If the threats are toothless then the scorecards are meaningless,” said Barbour, referring to the closely watched voter guides issued by many conservative groups.
Scott Reed, a political strategist for the newly aggressive U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said that such ratings now amount to “hollow threats” and that the success of the party’s mainstream wing would give Speaker John Boehner of Ohio some room to maneuver in the House.
“If Speaker Boehner increases his margins, he'll have a more manageable caucus, and governing will be back front and center,” Reed said.
Sending a message
Yet even as many Republicans predict a new season of more pragmatic conservatism, elements of the right are warning party leaders in Washington that they should not misread the election results so far.
“If we do win the majority, they better use it responsibly and they better use it aggressively,” said Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, who is considering a presidential bid. “If they get complacent, if they just end up being a cheap version of the Democratic Party, there’s going to be a fierce backlash.”
Matt Bevin, who challenged Sen. Mitch McConnell in the Kentucky primary and was thrashed by 25 percentage points, said the primaries had sent an important message to party leaders: “You will be challenged within your ranks.”
Bevin predicted that congressional Republicans would be less likely to tack to the middle now. But the fact that Republicans from both wings are now speaking in the future tense underscores the degree to which the intraparty struggle appears to have been settled for the moment.
Even the Senate Conservatives Fund, which led the charge against McConnell and has been among the most aggressive of the outside groups, seems to be looking to the horizon.
“Primaries are good because they give voters choices and they hold politicians accountable, but once the primaries are over, it’s important for Republicans to come together to defeat the Democrats,” said Matt Hoskins, executive director of the group, adding that it had started to “to build a farm team of conservatives for higher office in the future.”