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The Republican candidates aligned with the "Tea Party" have not scored any major victories in the 2014 election cycle. The string of defeats has been cast as a sign the Republican establishment has emerged victorious in red state battle with the conservative grassroots. But some Tea Party activists think this year's campaigns show their movement has actually won in a larger, ideological context .
The much-talked about Republican "civil war" is over, at least for the people who thought it even existed in the first place. Both the Tea Party grassroots and the GOP establishment have taken lessons from the clashes over the past three election cycles. Republicans have learned to adopt more Tea Party talking points, and conservative grassroots voters have shown they are willing to back establishment candidates who have adopted their views.
Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist, who has been described as the "ideological godfather" of the Tea Party, told Business Insider he believes the warring factions of the Republican Party have merged.
"There is no war between the Republican establishment and the Tea Party for the same reason Siamese twins who share a heart and brain do not argue much," Norquist said in an email. " The Tea Party won two years ago when 'spend less' was added to 'never raise taxes' in the Reagan Republican catechism."
Overall, the Republican divide of the past few years seems to be fading. There's perhaps no better example of this than Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's huge victory Tuesday night in a primary battle in which he faced an intra-party challenge from Matt Bevin, who was endorsed by the grassroots group FreedomWorks and the Senate Conservatives Fund.
McConnell beat Bevin by adopting a theme designed enhance his potential appeal among grassroots voters. In 2008, as he had been for much of his career, McConnell was a proud promoter of congressional earmarks and the money he was able to bring back to Kentucky. He ran an ad during that race boasting about the more than $1 billion he brought back to the state.
"That would never fly today," said Amy Kremer, the former chair of the Tea Party Express.
By 2010, as Tea Party earned a series of election victories and earmarks became a symbol of waste in Washington, McConnell helped end them. He won't campaign on "bringing home the bacon" this year, and he stands firmly against an effort to bring back earmarks.
"McConnell’s evolving message shows how the real Tea Party can co-opt and win over the GOP establishment when it sticks to its principles," wrote John Hart, Sen. Tom Coburn's former communications director, on Real Clear Politics.
The "real Tea Party" Hart is referring to is a larger movement.
Rob Engstrom, the national political director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a staunch supporter of the GOP establishment, said the definition of the Tea Party "means a lot of different things in a lot of different places." Indeed, in the Kentucky race, the notion of a "Tea Party" proved to be a relative one. Down went Bevin, the candidate of choice of some "Tea Party"-aligned groups. But "Tea Partiers" got their candidate in the form of McConnell — and they clearly gave him their votes.
McConnell ended up barreling over Bevin, and he did so in large part by winning over the most conservative of voters. A poll released last Friday showed him up 58-35 among self-identified conservatives.
"'Tea Party' people got the candidate they wanted," one GOP strategist told Business Insider.
McConnell was often portrayed in the national conservative media as a candidate who didn't subscribe to conservative ideals. But his battle during the primary season was almost entirely against the groups he felt didn't flow with the conservative movement. He was referring to these grassroots groups when he said in March he would "crush them everywhere."
Engstrom agreed the so-called civil war is over, but he attributed it to the fact the supposed grassroots candidates clearly have not caught on with voters.
"I can’t find many instances of this narrative manifesting itself in any meaningful way," Engstrom said. "Are there always differences in both political parties with regard to personality and geography? Absolutely. No question about it. But the narrative itself has been proven to be of limited impact."
Engstrom argued insurgent candidates were deeply flawed. For example, he said Bevin ran the "most embarrassing campaign in history."
Across the country, the results involving intra-Republican fights have been the same. In Georgia, b usinessman David Perdue and the Chamber-backed U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston advanced to a GOP runoff. U.S. Reps. Paul Broun and Phil Gingrey, the race's two candidates who promised to be the most conservative, didn't come close. In Idaho, Chamber-backed incumbent U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson defeated his insurgent challenger, by more than twenty points.
The story will be the same in upcoming Senate races that were theoretically thought to be up for grabs months ago due to internal GOP feuding. In South Carolina (Lindsey Graham), Tennessee (Lamar Alexander), and Mississippi (Thad Cochran), incumbent senators look set to triumph in their respective primaries.
This has happened largely because the incumbents and the "establishment" candidates have adopted the narrative of the broader grassroots conservative movement. Thanks to post-2010 makeovers like McConnell's, on the overarching issues, there's an underlying symmetry between the factions of conservatism — they are all opposed to raising taxes, spending more, and the Affordable Care Act as a whole.
"I believe we already have won," Kremer said. "We have changed the political landscape across the country. We have changed the narrative."
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