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Tea party still calls shots for the GOP

Sullivan
Hatch

Tuesday was another banner day for tea party conservatives.

Really? Despite Sen. Orrin Hatch’s easy renomination in Utah over a tea party challenger?

Yup. Remember that the goal for hard-line conservatives isn’t to win every seat in the Republican Senate and House conferences. No, the goal is to ensure that everyone who is elected – including those originally elected as tea party insurgents – toes the line.

To do that, they need to keep incumbents terrified, and Tuesday helped. First, there was the defeat of a House incumbent, Rep. John Sullivan of Oklahoma, by a conservative challenger. Apparently the big issue was Sullivan’s attendance – he missed votes in 2009 while in rehab for alcoholism.

What’s important, however, isn’t the reason for the outcome but how it is interpreted in Washington. And you can be sure that conservatives will do their best to spin this as another case of what happens when a Republican politician “goes Washington” and strays from his conservative roots.

Meanwhile in Utah, the lesson isn’t going to be that Hatch-style conservatives – I hesitate to call him a moderate – are acceptable to Republican voters. No, it’s going to be that Hatch-style conservatives can survive if they shift to the right and spend at least two solid years groveling to their state’s tea partyers. And even then they are forced into serious primaries, something no member of Congress wants.

Why do I think that the more ideological spin will win?

Because there’s plenty of organization behind it, while no one is out there pushing any other interpretation. Nor is there anyone, at least no one organized, with incentive to do so. Even the Democrats have an incentive to push ideological interpretations, because it plays into a natural story line that Republicans have become extremists and are out of the mainstream.

Again, what really matters in all this is what future candidates for Republican nominations – including incumbents – believe about GOP primary electorates. And despite Hatch’s win, Tuesday will wind up being yet another example of just how conservative politicians must be to win Republican nominations.

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who contributes to the Washington Post blogs Plum Line and PostPartisan.

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