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The American Right, Not the 'Tea Party,' Is the GOP's Big Liability

Alex Wong/Getty Images

For four years running, the American political class has been mired in a debate over the impact the "Tea Party" and its candidates have had on Republican politics. It started in 2010, when the "Tea Party" may well have cost Republicans the Senate, and came full circle last night when "Tea Party" candidates in Georgia, Kentucky and Oregon lost their primaries to candidates backed by the Republican Party, which has had quite enough thank you.

But the debate has been rendered almost meaningless by the sometimes-lazy, sometimes-opportunistic tendency of its participants to create an identity between the American right and the handful of grassroots organizations and political chop shops that have assumed the "Tea Party" brand. We've all succumbed to it, but it has obscured what's really happening within the conservative movement.

That's why "Tea Party" groups flinch when Republicans and members of the commentariat blame the "Tea Party" for Todd Akin, and that's why the Republican victory over the "Tea Party" last night, while real, sounds much bigger than it actually is.

Back in March, when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell boasted about "crushing" Tea Party candidates everywhere, he wasn't talking about marginalizing the right, but denuding a specific network of conservative organizations. And there he succeeded. But the real issue isn't whether the "Tea Party," now vanquished, has been a liability for the Republican Party, but whether the Republican electorate is fractious and reactionary, and has thus kept the Senate out of reach for Republicans two cycles in a row.

The answer is yes. And Republicans have addressed that problem not by running shock and awe campaigns against individual "Tea Party" candidates, but by aligning behind candidates and incumbents conservative enough for the primary electorate yet polished enough (they hope) to avoid Akin-like admissions against interest. There are no Christine O'Donnells this year, but there are no Mike Castles either.

So the questions now are whether the current crop of GOP candidates can actually suppress the right wing Id, and, secondarily, whether the winning candidates of the American right can durably embed themselves into the political system. Just as we know that 2016 (a presidential year) will be a tough one for Senate Republicans, we can also project that conservatives who win swing states this year will face a much different electorate when they're up again in six years. And come then, their conservatism will be a liability, not an asset.

There are a bunch of ways to overcomplicate this, and make it seem as if the GOP has vanquished the right, or as if the right isn't a drag on the Republican Party. On Tuesday, Slate's Dave Weigel demonstrated that if you use the "Tea Party" as your key analytical unit, and moosh together the very different 2010 and 2012 elections, you can obscure the Republican Party's problem with its base, and even make it appear as if the establishment, not the right, is the GOP's real problem.

I'd say you can only blame "the Tea Party" for a net loss of two Senate seats since 2010. That's a period during which it helped send Mike Lee, Ron Johnson, Pat Toomey, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul to the upper House—during which "establishment" candidates like Denny Rehberg, Heather Wilson, Rick Berg, Josh Mandel, George Allen, Tommy Thompson, Carly Fiorina, and Dino Rossi totally failed to win seats.

It's true that "Tea Party" candidates, defined narrowly, have only lost two or three seats over the last four years, and won a bunch of seats in 2010, while establishment candidates lost everywhere in 2012. Conservatives like to stack the evidence this way to diminish the GOP's broader electability problems. Similarly, if you subtract my air shots and other miscues from my golf score, I'm Tiger Woods.

But this is a poor heuristic. It vastly inflates the right's national and swing-state viability by pitting their 2010 victories—which establishment candidates would have won as well—against the establishment's 2012 defeats, in which no conservative alternatives would have fared better.

In reality Republicans would probably have five more Senate seats than they currently hold if not for the right's fractiousness, and the right's big victories are a mix of red state gimmes (Ted Cruz, Mike Lee) and wave riders like Pat Toomey, Ron Johnson, and Marco Rubio who will have a hard time hanging on when they're in cycle in 2016. In other words, the right's biggest victories might ultimately prove fleeting or Pyrrhic. And if right-lurching Republicans win swing state elections in 2014, they'll probably face the same presidential year problems in 2020—even if they aren't "Tea Party" candidates.