[C]hallenges to one authority in the party are coming from another power center in the party. Parties are not strongly hierarchical organizations to begin with, so the way in is just to start playing. Whatever else she is, Sarah Palin is the party’s most recent nominee for vice president. That’s not an outsider position. And so neither are the candidates she backs. And these candidates are contesting party primaries. But “outsiders” like outsider rhetoric, but they are in the tent. The Tea Party’s agenda — as well as the agenda of a diverse group can be defined — is indistinguishable from the Republican agenda of the last decade.
That's Hans Noel, recruited by John Sides over at the Monkey Cage to explain how Marc Ambinder (an excellent reporter who I like a lot) got it wrong in his Sunday NYT piece about how one should understand the various high-profile primaries over the last several months. His whole piece is excellent, and I highly recommend it.
I think it helps to start from scratch a bit on these questions. What is a political party in contemporary American politics? It turns out, if you read the work of party network scholars such as Hans, or Seth Masket, or me, that it's not really very easy to answer that question. Parties contain formal organizations, such as the RNC, the Texas Republican Party, or the House Republican Conference. They also contain informal party networks which include activists, campaign and governing professionals, partisan media outlets and personalities, formally organized factions (such as the Club for Growth), and party-aligned interest groups. And they include the politicians themselves (who may well have previously been and may still think of themselves as associated with one or more of those components). There's no automatic hierarchy within these parties -- the formal party organizations aren't necessarily in charge or in any way more important than various other parts of the network. Instead, who has influence is contested, and it's partially negotiated, and partially fought out, in nominations for candidates for elective office.
It's not impossible for a true non-party group or person to get involved in nomination fights. Some candidates really are outsiders, who have no prior connections with or loyalty to the party network. Such candidates usually fail, however, unless they essentially find ways to earn the use of party resources, which generally entails becoming more deeply entwined within the party. For example: party donors are going to be far more likely to give to an "outsider" who knows how to talk about party issues in the right way, which may require the "outsider" candidate to hire policy experts and communications staff who can teach her to do so. But at that point, the candidate is no longer really outside the party any more.
So contests such as Crist vs. Rubio or Murkowski vs. Miller are best seen not as battles between the Republican Party against outsiders, but as internal battles within different factions or groups for influence within the Republican Party.
Why does it matter what we call them? The "party against outsiders" idea leads to where Ambinder winds up, with the notion that parties are getting weaker. But if what's really happening is that parties are not getting weaker but that new or different groups are gaining influence within those parties, then the real stories are about which groups or party components are advancing, which are losing, and what policy implications such changes will deliver. Note here that "insurgent" attacking "establishment" also misses that picture. We need to know which of the various establishments are involved -- so that in the Murkowski/Miller fight, it may be that the Murkowski family faction was opposed by -- I don't know! The Palin faction? The local Tea Party faction? National conservative activists? Calling one side the "establishment" just doesn't help a lot -- not when the other side contains a former governor (in Alaska), or a former GOP Speaker of the state House (in Florida), or has the support of a former president (as in Colorado, on the Democratic side), or the support of blogs and activists (as in Arkansas, again on the Dem side).
So: these primaries are, at least possibly, quite important, because they are (or at least they may be) important fights over who has influence within the parties. And those fights might be over issues; they might be over groups; or they might be over components of the party. That latter point may be fairly important, and hard to pick out at first -- there can be fights between formal party organizations at different levels (state vs. national, county vs. state, etc.). There can also be fights between one part of the larger party network and another -- between, say, nationally-based ideological bloggers and locally-based donors. And there can be fights between formal and informal party components: say, between the NRCC and the Club for Growth, or between a state Republican Party and activists within that state. Some of these fights might have policy implications; others might not. It takes a lot of reporting to figure it out, and then even more to looks across states and contests to assess whether something important is really happening on a national level, or it's just a hodgepodge of unrelated and very different circumstances. The problem is that if reporters simply accept a party vs. outsider frame, they're going to miss what's going on.
Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist. He blogs at A plain blog about politics.