Last week, primary elections in several states killed off a few ultraconservative candidates whose views flirted with nuttiness. In Georgia, for example, U.S. Rep. Paul Broun — a physician who has called evolution and the big-bang theory “lies straight from the pit of hell” — drew only 9.8 percent of the vote in a crowded race to become the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate.
In the same Georgia primary contest, U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey, an obstetrician-gynecologist, pulled down just 10 percent of the vote. Last year, the gaffe-prone Gingrey drew national ridicule for defending former Missouri congressman Todd Akin, who had said that natural processes protect a woman from pregnancy after rape.
Meanwhile, in Kentucky, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell easily dispatched a Republican challenger, Matt Bevin, who had suggested that legalizing gay marriage could lead to parents marrying their children.
Those results, among others, cheered the Republican establishment, which has grown tired of fielding weird candidates who cannot win general elections, and led to a round of obituaries for the Tea Party movement, which had backed several of the losers. According to the chattering classes, the election results prove that the Tea Party is on life support, a dying force in conservative politics. That goes double for the doyenne of the Tea Party movement, Sarah Palin, whose chosen candidate in the Georgia Senate primary, Karen Handel, also lost.
But that view is just wrong. Tea Partiers have already accomplished what they set out to do: move the Republican Party much further to the right. While the foot-in-mouth, reality-challenged candidates may have been swept from the stage, the Tea Party has grafted its DNA onto the GOP. The Republican Party is now a small tent of hard-right absolutists who deny science, worship the rich and detest compromise.
Ronald Reagan wouldn’t recognize his party — and wouldn’t be welcome there either, as former Florida governor Jeb Bush noted two years ago. “Ronald Reagan would have, based on his record of finding accommodation, finding some degree of common ground, as would my dad — they would have a hard time if you define the Republican Party — and I don’t — as having an orthodoxy that doesn’t allow for disagreement, doesn’t allow for finding some common ground,” he said.