Reading the Republican Primary Leaves
Reading the Republican Primary Leaves

by Jules Witcover

Is the Grand Old Party coming to its senses? The question arises from the latest Republican congressional primary elections, in which all party establishment incumbents were renominated over tea party favorites promising to move the GOP even farther to the right.

In North Carolina, Ohio, Indiana and Mississippi, incumbents or other establishment Republicans won -- most of them conservatives but none of the far right-wing wacko type that won primaries in recent years but lost badly in the general elections. It was a heartening outcome for party regulars who feared a further infusion of tea party extremism.

The centerpiece of the day's voting was the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate seat now held in North Carolina by Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan. She is seeking re-election with a self-imposed target on her back as a supporter of President Obama's Affordable Care Act.

Despite increasing sign-ups for the much-maligned Obamacare, the GOP continues to sell its repeal-and-replace solution as its prime pitch in the party's drive to gain control of the Senate in November.

In a determined pushback against the tea party's intramural threat, powerhouse independent groups like the Chamber of Commerce and Karl Rove's American Crossroads weighed in heavily for the establishment candidate, North Carolina House speaker Thom Tillis, against his tea party foe, Greg Brannon.

Tillis comfortably won with about 45 percent to 25 for Brannon, avoiding a runoff, no doubt to the political discomfort of Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. He campaigned for Brannon in pursuit of his own apparent aspirations to be the 2016 tea party presidential nominee.

The primary victories of Tillis, the renominations of Rep. Walter Jones of North Carolina, of U.S. House Speaker John Boehner for his 13th term in his seat, and of Reps. David Joyce of Ohio and Susan Brooks of Indiana, as well as Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, all reinforced the establishment hold on the party in both houses of Congress.

It was of particular pleasure to Boehner. After a long stretch of newcomer House Republicans bucking his efforts to revive a modicum of compromise with the Democratic minority, he has recently been given to labeling them whiners.

At the same time, there is ample evidence that the tea party movement has persuaded establishment Republicans in Congress to accommodate more of the newcomers' conservative views on maintaining the GOP as the Party of No against the bulk of the Obama agenda.

This very trend should make it easier for Democrats to paint the opposition as alien to the more moderate Republicanism that once marked the party reputation under Bob Dole in the Senate and Bob Michel in the House, and even in some of the Ronald Reagan years.

But loyalty in either party is not what it used to be, and in any event it's risky to read too much in party primary results in non-presidential election years. General interest is much lower and voter turnout relatively sparse, with incumbents holding the high cards if only because of name recognition and familiarity.

Turnout is a problem in all midterm congressional elections, because the outcome may not seem as critical to average voters' concerns as choosing a president once every four years. Obama's task is somehow to convey the urgent conviction among Democrats and like-minded independents that unless they vote in numbers as if the presidency were at stake, his remaining two years in it may well be mere treading water.

As the Republicans seem engaged with their tea party faction in a battle for the direction of the GOP, many Democrats appear to suffer a deficiency of enthusiasm for their elected leader who inspired so much of it six years ago.

Obama's personal approval rating, hovering around 40 percent, suggests an attitude among too many Americans that they don't much care now. They may have become so indifferent to him, and indeed to all official Washington, that they no longer see either of them as solvers of problems that affect their own lives.


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Reading the Republican Primary Leaves