Congressional Primaries: How The Tea Party and GOP Fared — And What It Means For The Midterms

In November, voters will head to the polls to determine, among other things, which party controls the U.S. Senate. The GOP needs to flip six Democratic-controlled seats in order to wrangle control of the chamber, and the results of Tuesday’s congressional primaries will have a big impact on whether or not that happens. Most of the action on Tuesday night was on the Republican side, but the outcomes of those intra-GOP battles will have a huge effect on Democrats — and, in turn, the fate of the rest of President Obama’s second term.

So, who won? Who lost? And what does it mean for November?

The Tea Party

Tuesday was not a good day for the Tea Party. Its biggest test was in the Kentucky Senate primary, where conservative die-hards had hoped Tea Party upstart Matt Bevin would be able to unseat the most unpopular senator in the country, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. But McConnell ran a shrewd campaign and ended up crushing Bevin by 25 points.

The Tea Party also faltered in Georgia’s madhouse of a Senate primary, which had no less than eight Republicans duking it out for the nomination. Tea Partiers in that race included Rep. Paul Broun, who once called evolution and the Big Bang “lies straight from the pit of Hell,” and Rep. Phil Gingrey, who publicly defended Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” comments. Yet Broun and Gingrey — and Karen Handel, the third Tea Party candidate in Georgia — all failed to advance to the July run-off.* Instead, that honor went to mainstream candidates David Perdue and Jack Kingston.

In totality, not a single Tea Party candidate was victorious on Tuesday, so it’s hard to read the night as anything but a disaster for the movement.

The Republican Party

In general, the GOP had a great night on Tuesday. The party’s biggest worry going into the night was that politically-inexperienced Tea Partiers would trounce establishment Republicans, making it harder for the party to win control of the Senate in November. That didn’t happen — but a series of peculiar events in Oregon’s Senate primary may have handed the party a less-than-ideal hand as they prepare for November.

In Oregon, doctor Monica Wehby had been seen as the GOP’s best chance at winning a Senate seat in the deep-blue state. But then, just a week before the primary, reports surfaced that Wehby had stalked an ex-partner — two ex-partners, actually. To make matters worse, she didn’t deny the allegations. This might have sunk her chances in the primary, but Oregon is a vote-by-mail state, and because none of this was reported until after most or all of the ballots had been mailed in, it couldn't (and didn't) impact the results.

Had the primary been held a week later, Oregon Republicans might have voted for Wehby’s opponent, Jason Conger. But it wasn’t, and they didn’t, and so their chances of winning Oregon's Senate seat just took a hit.

Control of the Senate

According to the election forecasters at the New York Times, Democrats only have a 59 percent chance of retaining control of the Senate. If the GOP gains control of the chamber, they could wreak significant havoc on Obama’s second term — especially if he’s given the opportunity to appoint a new Supreme Court justice. On Tuesday, it became a bit more likely that this will happen. But just a bit.

Though McConnell won his primary, he’s not out of the woods just yet. In November, he’ll face off against Democrat Alison Lundergan-Grimes, a formidable opponent who recently embarrassed McConnell by informing him that he doesn’t know how to hold a rifle. McConnell is still considered a slight favorite for reelection, though; had Bevin defeated him, Lundergan-Grimes would already be popping corks and celebrating her inevitable victory.

Similarly, Georgia Democrats certainly wish Republicans had nominated one of their nuttier candidates for the state’s open Senate race. But even though that didn’t happen, Democrats nevertheless have a serious shot at winning the open Senate seat. They’ve nominated Michelle Nunn, the daughter of beloved former Senator Sam Nunn, to help them do it, and they did so smoothly and without contention, unlike the GOP’s nasty civil war of a primary.

While the results of Tuesday’s primaries make it just a little more likely that Republicans will win control of the Senate, there are still five months until the general election. And, as many Republican candidates have painfully learned over the past two election cycles, it’s easy to throw a winnable race in five months.

*Because no candidate got 50 percent of the vote, the top two vote-getters will face off again in July.