The 2014 election campaign has boiled down to a single issue – whether the extreme conservative policies associated with the Tea Party movement will be rejected or prevail.
That means issues ranging from tax reform to health care to foreign policy may seem to matter, but they really don’t.
In 2012, the Republicans lost some seats in Congress, thanks to extreme right-wing candidates, who defeated traditional GOP incumbents and then lost to Democrats, who seemed safer. In effect, the GOP defeated itself.
The extreme right has continued its drive to capture control of the GOP agenda, so this year provided a new series of tests, especially of Senate incumbents.
The most well known was the challenge to Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader. By any standard, he is one of the most conservative senators, but he still faced a right-wing primary opponent. His victory was seen as a sign of the rejection of the extreme right.
GOP Senators Lamar Alexander in Tennessee and Thad Cochran in Mississippi, who might fairly be labeled as moderates, had to overcome strongly conservative opponents. So did conservative Republicans Lindsey Graham in South Carolina and Pat Roberts in Kansas.
These rejections of the right virtually assured Republicans they would hold onto these seats, essential if they are to gain control of the Senate, which is a real possibility.
But the Tea Party is far from dead. House GOP leader Eric Cantor lost to a tea partier in a Virginia Republican primary. And the right wing movement lost some Senate primaries by narrow margins, leaving it defiant, not dispirited. The Tea Party retains the votes to dominate House Republican policy.
Maine’s GOP Sen. Susan Collins, whose voting record is rated as moderate, successfully discouraged a challenge from the right. But her position, if re-elected, has to be considered in terms of what happens in the Senate under Republican leadership.
Has McConnell been lining up as a pure conservative to enable him to defeat a challenger or is he really deeply conservative? Collins and others GOP senators must follow his lead, and, moderate or not, she could end up supporting his conservative policies.
The possibility that Collins would find herself once again backing a conservative McConnell is the best issue Shenna Bellows, her Democratic opponent, can raise.
But some GOP senators now say they want to support compromises. They see that simply adopting the politics of “no” could cost them in the 2016 elections.
These pragmatic Republicans would rather make some progress on their agenda than win nothing by insisting on completely pure conservative positions. The GOP problem will be to get their most conservative members to go along.
The mere fact that some senators have come to support compromise over ideological purity may be a sign they are no longer fearful of the Tea Party movement. Perhaps the electoral victories this year have encouraged them to believe that the traditional, pro-business, small government GOP can succeed without abandoning its willingness to make deals and gradual progress toward its goals.
Given the extensive use of the filibuster, a Republican-controlled Senate will need to get 60 votes to pass its program. Only if the GOP moderates its agenda can it hope to pick up votes it must get from middle-of-the-road Democrats.
If the traditional Republicans in Congress, many of whom have strongly conservative credentials, can succeed in convincing their extreme conservative colleagues to accept less than complete legislative satisfaction, Obama seems ready to negotiate deals with them.
The President is probably less of a liberal than the hard right makes him. Given a GOP Congress willing to accept some progress on its policies as a sign of success, he could work on improving his image just as Congress improves how voters see it.
In short, in both elections this year and in Congress next year, the real issue will be Tea Party conservatism.
That also applies in the Maine election for governor. Gov. Paul LePage is a favorite of the hard right, but not of a majority of the state’s voters. He can only win if Democrat Mike Michaud and independent Eliot Cutler cancel each other out.
Cutler has laid out sound and innovative policies. If the campaign were about issues, he might legitimately claim to be the best candidate.
But the campaign is about whether a Tea Party backed candidate will be reelected. The election won’t be decided on policy proposals like Cutler’s, but on defeating LePage, and Michaud, with his party behind him, is seen by many as the better bet.