I felt a very small bit of Eric Cantor’s pain when he lost his primary. It did not disrupt my career, but it did make me rewrite a column, which is not one of my favorite things to do.
I had just finished drafting a piece about the degree to which mainstream conservative Republicans had defeated tea party conservatives in this year’s House and Senate primaries. But then came Cantor’s defeat, followed by the survival of Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran by a very small margin, which was composed largely of liberal Democrats – especially African-Americans – who voted in the Republican primary. That is, if only Republicans had voted in Mississippi, Cochran’s tea party challenger would have won.
These were not simply Republican incumbents. There were very powerful ones. When the House majority leader – and the man who would be chairman of the Appropriations Committee if his party won control of the Senate – fail to win a majority of their own party voters in primaries, profound influences are at work.
A third primary that has been hailed as an example of the strength of the mainstream conservatives in fact demonstrates the opposite. Sen. Lindsey Graham won by a large margin over his nearest challenger, but that was because he had several opponents. He received only 56 percent of the vote – a respectable margin for a senator in a final election against the other party, but a small percentage of support for a three-term senator from voters in his own party.
What commentators ignored in their interpretation of this was that Graham’s fellow South Carolina senator, Tim Scott, received more than 90 percent of the vote in his contest. (South Carolina is electing two senators this year because of the resignation of former Sen. Jim DeMint.) The great difference between Scott’s vote and Graham’s is attributable entirely to right-wing dissatisfaction with Graham.
Even with these strong showings by the extreme conservatives, the 2014 results are far better for the mainstream conservatives than in 2012 or 2010.
Given this, when I originally wrote, I speculated that it might encourage House Speaker John Bohner to take back some of the veto power he has given the tea party over legislation. He has on several occasions used his power to put legislation on the floor that passed with a large majority of Democrats and a minority of his own party, but he has restricted that only to those measures absolutely essential for keeping the government functioning – and for avoiding total political disaster for his party.
Whether or not my speculation would have proven true is moot. The recent showings of tea party strength have already reinforced the right wing’s control of the House agenda. Immigration reform was the most prominent victim, but from the political standpoint, a more significant indication was the announcement by new House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy that he is opposed to the extension of the Export-Import Bank.
No issue better illustrates the gap between the ideological rigidity of the tea party and much of the rest of the country. Many of us who have supported the Export-Import Bank would prefer a world in which no country subsidized its own exports, but given the fact that many countries do, ending our bank would be a form of unilateral disarmament that would have a negative effect on employment.
But whatever one’s view of the bank on its merits, it is striking that McCarthy, who had been the third-ranking Republican in order to succeed to the majority leader’s job, had to reverse himself on this important issue.
McCarthy’s switch is further evidence that even having lost most of this year’s primary contests, the tea party remains a vibrant force among Republicans.
Indeed, to the extent that many Republicans survived tea party challenges, they did so by embracing the tea party’s views. In Graham’s case, while he did not reverse his position on issues like immigration, his strident demagoguery on the Benghazi issue was clearly a successful effort to ingratiate himself with the right wing – at least enough for him to get the narrow majority he needed to avoid a run-off.
In my original draft, I expressed my ambivalence about what had been up to that point a string of defeats for the tea party. As a partisan Democrat, I found myself rooting for victories by tea party candidates because of their relative unelectability.
There are five Democratic senators now sitting – from Nevada, Delaware, Missouri, Colorado and Indiana – who won their seats only because of the extremism of Republicans who won the right to oppose them.
But from the standpoint of the country, having the Republican Party subject to such rigid ideological impulses is unhealthy, and I understand the motivation of those black Democrats in Mississippi who voted in the Republican primary – as allowed by law – for the responsible conservative, Cochran, even though if he had lost to his tea party opponent, the moderate Democrat, Travis Childers, would have had a chance to win in November.
While the tea party’s record in 2014 will not be nearly as good as it was in the previous two sets of primaries, they are in a strong position for the 2016 presidential contest. Their opposition there will not be powerful, popular incumbents.
The mainstream faction does not have an obvious candidate. In this case, my partisan feelings and my interest in the best outcome for the country come together: What seems likely now is a bitterly divisive Republican selection process that will have two beneficial results.
First, it makes for a Democratic victory in November. And, if as I think likely, the strength of the tea party influence leads to a serious Republican defeat in 2016, I believe the response of the mainstream conservatives will be a determined and successful effort to regain control of their party from those on the extreme.
Barney Frank is a retired congressman and the author of landmark legislation. He divides his time between Maine and Massachusetts.
— Special to the Telegram