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Are the grown-ups back in charge?

By Corey Dade
updated 11:34 AM EDT, Wed May 21, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Corey Dade says the mainstream GOP victories put the adults back in power
  • But the tea party may have already succeeded in dragging the party to the far right, he says
  • Races in Kentucky and Georgia may prove if the party has been pulled too far to the right

Editor's note: Corey Dade is an award-winning journalist based in Washington. He is also a former NPR correspondent and political reporter at the Wall Street Journal and writes the politics blog at the The Root. You can follow him on Twitter @CoreyDade. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- So the establishment Republicans whooped the tea party Republicans on Tuesday.

The sane adults in the room reasserted their authority, particularly in the Republican Senate primaries in Kentucky and Georgia.

But let's not run wild with the notion that the mainstream has once and for all crushed the extremists. Tea partiers may be losing the midterm battle, but their headstrong, mouth-foaming moxie has won the ideological war by having yanked the Republican Party to the right.

Just ask House Speaker John Boehner if any daylight still exists on the issues between establishment and tea party candidates. On Tuesday, he wrapped this blended family in a bear hug and insisted all the party's children are basically the same.

Like any relationship between a parent and a teenager, tension between the two wings of the GOP will continue to simmer and at times boil (tea partiers are sure to make "primary" a verb in future elections).

Corey Dade
Corey Dade

So far, this election cycle is sorting both groups into separate but complementary roles that should drive the party for the foreseeable future: mainstreamers as the better fundraisers and holders of more top elected offices, and tea partiers as the grassroots soldiers and conscience of the party.

Quite simply, both groups need each other.

In Kentucky, even before he cruised to victory on Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was hyping his endorsement from tea party golden boy and fellow Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. McConnell needs Paul's influence to help court tea party supporters of McConnell's primary foe, Matt Bevin. Many Bevin backers are angry with McConnell for bludgeoning Bevin in campaign attacks and are threatening to stay home during the general election.

Never mind that McConnell handpicked the candidate who ran against Paul in the 2010 primary. All is forgiven as they join forces against McConnell's general election challenger, Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes.

Why is McConnell in a dead heat against a comparative novice in Grimes? Because Grimes, Kentucky's secretary of state, is everything McConnell is not.

She's a fresh face, with no apparent political baggage, and she's coming into her own on the stump as a forceful speaker who connects with audiences. She's a member of one of Kentucky's prominent political families, which has close ties to former President Bill Clinton, the only Democrat to have twice won Kentucky in more than a generation. Grimes also has the resources to compete, outpacing McConnell's fundraising in the last three quarters.

What we learned from Tuesday's primaries
Tough night for the tea party
Can the tea party stand the test of time?

It doesn't entirely explain why McConnell appears to be facing the re-election fight of his career.

He never has been anyone's beloved baby-kissing retail politician. More people than not in Kentucky think he's doing a bad job in Washington. And the truth is lots of folks just don't like Mitch McConnell.

After 30 years in office, including the past six as "Dr. No" leading the obstructionist caucus, McConnell is such a creature of Washington that his face resembles the Capitol dome.

Now, he hopes voters will get so giddy at the prospect of Republicans retaking the Senate and kneecapping Obama's presidency that they will stifle their McConnell gag reflex and return him to Washington to lead the charge.

That may seem ridiculous, but it's not a bad bet. Among Kentucky voters, the only person more unpopular than McConnell is President Obama. So guess whom McConnell is ostensibly running against?

Grimes is still unknown to some voters, so McConnell is trying to define her as a liberal toady of Obama. He wants to tie her to the Affordable Care Act, in a tactic that could resonate because, astonishingly, so many sharp Kentuckians hate Obamacare, but like the state health exchange, even though they are one and the same.

For her part, Grimes hits McConnell where he's vulnerable as a Washington insider "out of touch" with voters. She holds a double-digit advantage among women, who make up 53% of the electorate. The self-proclaimed "strong Kentucky woman" could make McConnell rue the day he voted against the Lilly Ledbetter Act, Violence Against Women reauthorization, and the Paycheck Fairness Act.

For Democrats, how important are women in midterm elections? In 2006, 55% of Democratic women voters turned out, and the party took back Congress. In 2010, 48% of them voted, and Democrats lost the House.

In Georgia, the Republican Senate field isn't clear, but one thing is: Voters don't want a wing nut to challenge Democratic nominee Michelle Nunn.

GOP runoff opponents David Perdue and Rep. Jack Kingston have staked out largely identical conservative positions. Perdue has the backing of 2012 tea party favorite Herman Cain, but he's more well-known as the cousin of former two-term Gov. Sonny Perdue. The two campaigns are locked in an eye-rolling duel to out-conservative each other with attack ads, like in this silly punch and counterpunch.

Once it shakes out, any Republican nominee in the deep-red state enters the general election with a roughly 55% edge against Nunn, the daughter of legendary former Democratic Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn. She has positioned herself as a moderate, but her recent stumble on Obamacare -- dodging the question of whether she would have voted for the law -- already gave the GOP a line of attack. Georgia is experiencing demographic trends that eventually will help Democrats, but not this year.

By November, tea partiers can take heart because they will have proven Republicans can't win without them and, in the process, ensured the party's 2016 presidential nominee will be a certified conservative.

Whether it wins them the White House, though, is a different matter entirely.

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