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The battle for the soul of the GOP is on in 2014, as pundits assured us, and the so-called Republican establishment was determined to push back the extremist Tea Party.

It was a believable narrative. In reality, however, the Tea Party had won before the primaries began. The once-fringe movement has successfully driven the GOP so far right that candidates from the “establishment” are scarcely distinguishable in most cases from their supposedly more radical counterparts. For the latest evidence, look no further then Tuesday’s Republican primaries.

In Nebraska, the Tea Party-backed candidate, Ben Sasse, handily defeated his primary challenger, State Treasurer Shane Osborn. Tea Party support for Sasse was clear: Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, Utah senator Mike Lee, and FreedomWorks PAC all provided him with endorsements. What remained unclear was which candidate in Nebraska was truly more right wing.

Osborn ran a campaign that, by any measure, was directly in line with the Tea Party brand of conservatism. For example, he supports a full repeal of the Affordable Care Act, while the GOP-led House of Representatives has seemingly given up on that cherished cause.

“Shane supports the full repeal of Obamacare because he believes that health care decisions should be left to those most qualified to make them—patients and their doctors—without government interference,” reads Osborn’s campaign website. The Spring legislative agenda drawn up by Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA), meanwhile, includes no action on repeal.

And at a moment when the CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is calling on the House to pass immigration reform, Osborn touted his right-wing position on the issue. “Shane Osborn believes the first step to solving our immigration problem is fully securing our southern border,” his website says. “He believes we cannot grant citizenship by way of amnesty to those who have illegally entered the United States.”

In fact, Osborn used those issues during the campaign to attack Sasse, arguing that the anti-establishment challenger was not conservative enough. “Nebraskans are learning that Ben Sasse isn’t the candidate he’s pretending to be [and] on the most important issues of the day, from immigration to Obamacare, Sasse is no conservative,” Osborn’s campaign said in a statement.

Ironically, an endorsement from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) ultimately doomed Osborn. Despite his unflinching conservatism, the seal of approval from McConnell — a symbol of the GOP establishment — sent Tea Party groups fleeing from his candidacy. For example, FreedomWorks, the influential libertarian fundraising group, initially endorsed Osborn but later threw its support behind Sasse — after McConnell offered his endorsement.

Because Tea Party groups can now expect Republican candidates to adhere to their far-right views, it seems, ideology no longer guarantees an endorsement. Even the perception of being part of the “establishment” can now ruin a candidate with the FreedomWorks crowd.

In West Virginia, the race to replace Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, who is running for the Senate, followed a similar narrative. Carpetbagger Alex Mooney won the race, declaring a victory for the Tea Party. But did the voters in West Virginia have the chance to reject a Tea Party-aligned candidate?

Former U.S. International Trade Commissioner and state legislator Charlotte Lane, who finished third in the race, seems to have hit all the popular Tea Party notes in her primary campaign. According to her website, Lane supports a full appeal of Obamacare, staunch opposition to groups like Planned Parenthood, and opposition to President Obama’s “war on coal.”

According to the Charleston Gazette, Mooney said in his victory speech last night that he would “fight against the Affordable Care Act, the ‘war on coal,’ and to protect traditional values.”

In races like those that took place Tuesday night, the Tea Party had them all in the bag before the first votes were cast.

Photo: Ted Cruz via Flickr

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