Almost one hundred years ago, a month of fierce and bloody German advance into France and Belgium gave way to the trench warfare that would define the Western Front of World War I. Despite ever increasing blood and treasure shed by both sides, the battle lines failed to move significantly for nearly three years. This election cycle, the civil war between establishment and insurgent elements in the Republican Party has moved firmly into the trenches. Vulnerable incumbents like Senators Pat Roberts (R-KS) and Thad Cochran (R-MS) have avoided the mistakes of colleagues felled in the previous two cycles, like ex-Senators Bob Bennett (R-UT) and Richard Lugar (R-IN).
Insurgent groups like the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks have hardly curtailed their involvement in Republican primaries — outside conservatives spent over $7 million to support Cochran’s opponent, State Sen. Chris McDaniel. However, Cochran fought back aggressively with the help of a $6 million war chest and air support from Mississippi Conservatives, an outfit championed by ex-Governor Haley Barbour.
Going as far as encouraging African-Americans to vote in Mississippi’s open primary by issuing mailers condemning McDaniel’s civil rights record—anathema to the conservative base— Cochran eked out a narrow runoff victory. In Kansas, Roberts fought back hard against attacks that he has “gone Washington”—he has rented his Kansas residence out for years—of the sort that helped fell Lugar in 2012. Going negative early against his main primary opponent, Dr. Milton Wolf, who had, among other transgressions, posted X-rays of patients’ gunshot wounds on Facebook with jokes about them, Roberts won re-nomination by a narrow margin. A third senator, Lamar Alexander (R-TN) vastly outspent an unheralded opponent, State Rep. Joe Carr, but won with a weak plurality.
House incumbents have an equally impressive record this cycle; despite the shocking defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) to a primary insurgent, anti-incumbent sentiment has failed to materialize into a wave of defeats. Only two other House incumbents have lost thus far: 91-year-old Ralph Hall (R-TX) and Kerry Bentivolio (R-MI), a reindeer farmer and Santa impersonator who won the 2012 primary unopposed after longtime Rep. Thad McCotter was thrown off the ballot on a technicality. A third congressman, Rep. Scott Desjarlais, is facing a recount after revelations that he carried on affairs with several of his patients prior to entering Congress and, despite his outspoken pro-life stance, pressured one into getting an abortion. This hardly fits the narrative of a Republican establishment on the run from a tide of Tea Party activists.
But it would be just as false to argue that the establishment has won the war: the vast resources expended and the incumbents’ narrow margins of victory beg to differ. Furthermore, the pickings of “moderate Republicans” have fallen dramatically since the beginning of the insurgency. Prior to the 2010 wave, there were eighteen Republican senators with a DW-NOMINATE ideology score (-1 is most liberal, 1 is most conservative) of less than 0.4. In the current Congress, there are only six, including Sens. Alexander and Cochran. The others include Susan Collins (R-ME) and Mark Kirk (R-IL), who hold office in blue states and are likely the only sort of Republicans who could ever hold these seats, Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), who lost her primary in 2010 but retained her seat through a write-in election, and Orrin Hatch (R-UT), who forestalled a serious challenge in 2012 through an alliance with presidential nominee Mitt Romney, an extremely popular figure among Utah Republicans, in large part due to his faith. By DW-NOMINATE scores, the median Republican Senator from before 2010 would be in the 25th percentile today.
As a result, the only standard by which the insurgent Republicans have lost is that they have failed to unseat Speaker Boehner and Leader McConnell. The moderates that they sought to purge from the Republican Party no longer, to any meaningful standard, exist. The establishment conservatives have been driven back and have not obstructed the insurgent agenda in any meaningful way – look at how much effect the Chamber of Commerce and other traditional Republican allies have had by endorsing comprehensive immigration reform or the reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank, for instance.
Establishment conservatives may argue that they have gotten the candidates they preferred in competitive Senate races in Arkansas, Louisiana, and North Carolina. But Rep. Tom Cotton (R-AR) has already gone against the House leadership on the Farm Bill. Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) abandoned ship on the debt ceiling. Rep. Thom Tillis (R-NC) has ruled out supporting immigration reform in its present form. If the standard for “establishment” is acknowledging that President Obama was born in Hawaii and that women don’t have force fields against rape sperm, then perhaps Cotton, Cassidy, and Tillis are part of the establishment. Their victory is not a sign that the establishment is winning; it only signifies how drastically the goalposts have shifted over the past five years. Thus, the lesson of this cycle is that there is barely enough firepower to defend establishment senators from defeat. There isn’t enough to defend the Chamber of Commerce’s agenda. And there certainly isn’t enough for Speaker Boehner to control his caucus.