Not-so tight races: Another bad night at the primaries for the Tea Party

News media predictions were off the mark

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell didn’t lose his primary Tuesday In Kentucky.  Not by a mile. He beat his Tea Party opponent with 60 percent of the vote.

[For election results,  RealClearPolitics provides good one stop shopping, with links to analysis, commentary and news stories.]

Whoa, wasn’t he supposed to be in the fight of his life? Consider CNN.com's Feb. 17 headline, “Senate’s top Republican in trouble? Tea party group calls on Sen. McConnell to drop out”: 

But before Republicans can face off against any vulnerable Democrats, they have to get through their own primaries. And in these contests there is a battle going on for the soul of the Republican Party, as establishment incumbents try to fend off tea party challengers.

Perhaps nowhere is that fight more vicious than in the Bluegrass state of Kentucky, where Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell is facing tea party candidate Matt Bevin.

The Atlantic back in August 2013 said, “A New Poll Suggests Trouble for Mitch McConnell.” “Why is Mitch McConnell in Trouble?” asked MSNBC

There have been a slew of premature terminal diagnoses in this election cycle, most having to do with the Tea Party challenges.

Tea Party candidates didn’t win in the Georgia Senate primary Tuesday either. In fact, out a field of five, the two classic Cocktail Party Republicans made the run-off, a former CEO and veteran House member. One of them will face Michelle Nunn, the daughter of former Senator Sam Nunn.

Nor did the Tea Party take out the “establishment” candidate in the GOP Senate primary in North Carolina earlier this month.  And Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi, who was once on pundit-life support, is looking fit and strapping for his primary day in June.

Going into this election season, the most compelling “narrative” about this election was the struggle between Tea Party and Cocktail Party Republicans.  Political reporters may have unconsciously overegged the custard and portrayed the races as closer than they really are for the sake of a good story. And, like all humanoids, we tend to fight the last battle; in the 2012 elections, the story in Senate elections was the Tea Party surge in GOP primaries. This year, not so much.

Sen. McConnell will go into the fall campaign essentially uncut from the primary. He has a credible challenger in Alison Lundergan Grimes and current polls do show a tight race.  He is also rolling in money and is an experienced, wily and tough politician.

But I am inclined to take the advice of one of our wisest campaign handicappers, Charlie Cook. Cook puts out a subscription newsletter that has a good article this week with the clever headline, “Who’s Really Toast”? His theme is to be wary when predicting the fall of incumbents. He writes:

What is pretty unusual about this year is that, as bad as it is for Senate Democrats, none of the party's nine elected incumbents facing challenging races can be considered dead or even a clear underdog at this point. Over the years, incumbents in both parties—including Conrad Burns, R-Mont., Norm Coleman, R-Minn., Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., Russell Feingold, D-Wis., Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, and John Sununu, R-N.H.—have faced truly uphill reelection challenges, and lost. But other incumbents certainly managed to pull a Lazarus and rise from the dead, or undergo a political resurrection while the campaign was in progress.

One of the most closely watched Senate races of 2014 is in Arkansas, where both of my late parents were born and raised. I have tons of relatives still in south Arkansas, visit Little Rock and northwest Arkansas at least once a year, and consider the Razorback State my ex officio home state, second only to my native Louisiana. A few months ago, the conventional wisdom in Washington, more so than in Arkansas, was that incumbent Mark Pryor was toast. Personally, I never quite bought into the "toast" characterization, but I do remember having a metaphysical conversation related to this race, specifically about when bread technically becomes toast and what level of brownness or crunchiness constitutes toast. While I am not quite sure I buy completely into the recent NBC News/Marist College and New York Times/Kaiser Family Foundation surveys showing Pryor with leads of 11 points and 10 points, respectively, over Rep. Tom Cotton, those polls do buttress the credibility of those showing Pryor now holding low-to-middle single-digit leads, and end the toast comparisons.

My hunch is that a lot of people got a little ahead of their skis in pronouncing Pryor dead…

There are going to be a number of other Senate races that  will stay tight into the fall, among them: Georgia, Michigan. Colorado, Alaska, Louisiana, and North Carolina.

The polling macroclimate forecast for Democrats in the fall remains treacherous.  But it’s wise to be cautious with orders of toast this far out.

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