WASHINGTON -- Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is nobody's example of a tea party Republican. Just two months ago, in an interview with the New York Times, he said of the tea party candidates challenging establishment Republicans, "We will crush them everywhere."
That's exactly what McConnell did on Tuesday when he raced passed tea party favorite Matt Bevin to win the Senate primary in Kentucky. But what was most striking in the aftermath was how quickly the tea party -- symbolized by the outside conservative groups that once were calling for the senator's defeat -- rushed to embrace this embodiment of the Washington GOP establishment and call for party unity in the fall.
Tuesday's results -- a very good night for the GOP establishment -- were no big surprise. Establishment victories in the marquee races were predicted well in advance. But based on the instant and overnight reactions, Democrats should no longer assume that the Republican opposition will be fractured, demoralized and as consumed by fighting each other as on taking back the Senate.
Republicans now appear ready to mount a united effort this fall with candidates more prepared than some were in the past to wage tough and costly general-election campaigns -- and with a map that shows ample opportunities to win back the net of six Senate seats they need to turn the Democrats into the minority party in both houses of Congress.
McConnell's victory came on a night when the tea party suffered other significant setbacks. In Georgia, neither of the two candidates who made the runoff in the Senate primary, businessman David Perdue and Rep. Jack Kingston, were tea party types. In Oregon, pediatric neurosurgeon Monica Wehby beat a more conservative candidate to win the Senate primary. In Idaho, Rep. Mike Simpson easily beat back a tea party challenger.
All through the early part of this year, there has been one political narrative above all others: tea party vs. Republican establishment, or a Republican Party at war with itself. It is both a real and flawed concept, as the first rounds of primaries have demonstrated.
Real because there are important differences between hard-charging tea party conservatives who believe there is still too much business as usual even among Republicans in Washington and the more cautious establishment types. Flawed because the Republican Party of 2014 is still more united by its deep dislike of President Obama and his policies, and by the prospect of taking control of the Senate in the fall, than by those differences.
The early victories by establishment candidates this spring do not mean the tea party is a spent force. A week ago, tea party regulars were cheering the nomination of Ben Sasse as their candidate for Senate in Nebraska. Sasse has some serious establishment pedigrees, but he was the candidate with the endorsements of Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Tex., and Mike Lee , R-Utah, and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin.
The primaries have yet to run their course, and so the final scorecard on tea party vs. establishment is incomplete. Most of the establishment candidates still facing tea party challengers are favored to prevail, though there is one important race where an incumbent faces a serious challenge. That's in Mississippi, where Sen. Thad Cochran has been challenged by state Sen. Chris McDaniel in a race that has taken a weird turn in the past week.
The other reason the tea party isn't a spent force is the degree to which it has bent the GOP establishment in its direction. House Speaker John Boehner said Tuesday: "There's not that big a difference between what you call the tea party and your average conservative. We're against Obamacare, we think taxes are too high, we think government is too big. I wouldn't continue to sing that same song."
People will continue to sing that song of a party divided, no matter what Boehner says. Stylistically there are still important differences between the most passionate tea party conservatives, who are determined to stop business as usual in Washington, and the party regulars for whom at least occasional compromise isn't a four-letter word. The party also remains split on some important policy issues -- battles that likely will be deferred until next year.
But Boehner's broader point is correct. That's partly because every establishment figure in the party, with rare exceptions, sees tea party activists as an essential part of a winning coalition. They need the tea party running at full strength this fall and are being careful not to do anything to push that wing of the party away.
"The tea party is a part of the Republican majority coalition at this point," said David Winston, a Republican pollster. "One of the things the party has to do generally is to make sure the reasons they're part of that majority coalition are reinforced. . . . Ultimately this is still about content."
The GOP establishment has learned from painful experiences in 2010 and 2012, when a number of tea party candidates proved not ready for general-election competition. With better candidates, Republicans might hold five more seats today. If that were the case, taking control with this fall's elections would be a cakewalk.
From those losses in 2010 and 2012, Republicans, particularly establishment Republicans, took away several important lessons. The first is that candidate quality matters, whether the candidate is a tea party favorite or a long-serving establishment conservative. Cruz, the tea party candidate in Texas in 2012, was a better candidate than his establishment opponent, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.
In this election year, Republicans are finding ways to put their best candidates into the general election. Right now they are breathing easier that there are no obvious Sharron Angles, Christine O'Donnells or Todd Aikens as their general-election candidates.
That may not be a universal truth this year. There are still some Republican candidates who must prove they are truly up to the task of knocking off a Democratic incumbent or winning an open seat in a competitive swing state. Democrats will be spending money to test those untested candidates. But so far, party leaders feel good about where things stand.
Another lesson incumbents learned was to be ready for a challenge. Longtime incumbents too easily dismiss what they see as fringe challengers. And, let's face it, that's the way the establishment regarded some of the tea party candidates in the past. McConnell certainly took Bevin seriously, and he provided an example for everyone else. The same goes for some of the establishment groups, who have rallied behind establishment candidates in early primaries.
What comes next will be equally important. McConnell faces a genuine challenge from Democratic Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes. GOP challengers in Democratic-held seats, including in some red states, are in tossup races. They need a united party behind them.
That means establishment Republicans must court the tea party. "You have to reach out very aggressively and indicate that as the nominee of the party you will be the voice of all the various parts of the party," Whit Ayres, a GOP pollster, said. "Successful nominees unite the party by making everyone feel they will be listened to and have a voice."
Republican strategists believe their voters are and will remain more engaged and passionate and therefore more likely to turn out in November. They believe that tea party identifiers will be there on Election Day. "I'm skeptical that they'll take their marbles and go home because, guess what, we're all wearing red jerseys and they're all wearing blue jerseys," said GOP pollster Glen Bolger.
Democrats recognize the challenges ahead, both because of the vagaries of midterm electorates that tend to favor the Republicans and what they see as a GOP establishment that has learned from its mistakes. They were not surprised by Tuesday night, but some took note of the apparent rallying round by antiestablishment conservative groups.
"I never underestimate their intelligence or their ability to see and understand their past mistakes and gaps and try to fill them," said a Democratic strategist, who declined to be identified to provide a more candid assessment of the coming contests. "We are facing a much more coordinated right than I think we saw in 2012."