Skip to main content

Are the grown-ups back in charge?

By Corey Dade
updated 11:34 AM EDT, Wed May 21, 2014
  • 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.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on

Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:10 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
updated 8:11 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
updated 3:57 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
updated 4:51 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
updated 2:25 PM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
updated 7:44 AM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
updated 6:29 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
updated 8:34 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
updated 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 10:13 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations