Director, Commonwealth Policy Center

Reports of the demise of GOP solidarity have been greatly exaggerated. True, pundits enjoyed fantasizing about a “civil war” within Republican ranks between the mainline candidates and the Tea Party wing. An example of that intramural rift was supposed to be the primary race for Kentucky’s US Senate seat between Mitch McConnell and Matt Bevin. In the days leading up to the primary, the prognostication climaxed. Some wondered if Bevin might even win more than 40% of the vote, a number that would be too low to win but too high for the party leadership to ignore.

In the end, Bevin nabbed about 35% of the vote. In Jefferson County, where Bevin was best known and had made his reputation, voter turnout was low. If there were any time for a “continental divide” between GOP mainstream and the Tea Party to present itself, that primary was the time.

In truth, the election numbers suggest that McConnell, while not necessarily a favorite of Kentucky conservatives, still enjoys a unified network of support. That says less about McConnell and more about the determination of conservatives to put as many roadblocks in President Obama’s legislative path as possible. The first step in that mission is, of course, to get Republicans elected. On that end there does not seem to be much controversy to write home about.

Bevin has said already that he will not support a Democrat opposing McConnell (in this case it would be Allison Lundergen Grimes). Much has been made about Bevin’s declining to sign some “unity pledge” to endorse his rival GOP victors. But such fanfare misses the point: The greatest unity that exists amongst conservatives is the drive to thwart President Obama. E.J. Dionne wrote in the Indianapolis Star that, while the Republican narrative will continue to be overwhelmingly anti-Obama, Democrats “ will run bank-shot campaigns, far less in support of the president than in opposition to the obstruction created by relentless Republican partisanship.” It is fair to assume that the solidarity shown by Republicans in Congress against the President is indicative of the wider conservative base’s commitment to deter Obama’s agenda.

National unrest with the President will also play a role in Kentucky’s own Congressional elections. Ryan Alessi, in his helpful breakdown of ten notable KY House races, notes that significant portions of the state have been moving to the right. That may not be enough to satisfy the mind of the Kentucky GOP trying yet again to avoid the dubious distinction of being the only Republican minority in Southern legislatures. But shifts to the right in the Bluegrass indicate a tiring of the national Democratic leadership. The President’s current crises within the Veterans Affairs Department and the CIA, both big headline grabbers, bode well for the Republican effort.

Rand Paul, still favored by much of the Tea Party, has been busy supporting Western Kentucky’s GOP candidates. Paul is a good example of where the values of the Tea Party and the political acumen of the mainstream Republican Party can merge. Paul showed up in support of McConnell during the Senate primary, a move that could have irked the Tea Party but didn’t. This suggests that the GOP and Tea Party colors are starting to bleed together.

The evidence for that is beginning to mount, and not just in Kentucky. In Georgia, Karen Handel rallied her Tea Party supporters to back mainliner Jack Kingston for his bid in the US Senate. David Horsey, writing for the LA Times, noted last week that the “ideological gap” between mainstream Republicans and the Tea Party was almost negligible.  

It will be up to Republican voters to harness this emerging unity into a successful November showing. Kentucky Republicans seem to have momentum, from the aforementioned right-ward movements of Kentucky areas to the public scandals involving John Arnold. Such headlines give Kentucky Republicans ample opportunity to form a platform of resistance to Democratic leadership. Democrat Allison Grimes will have a tough road of her; she gravitates towards the far left on abortion, a subject on which the Commonwealth has been moving right for some time. McConnell’s ad campaigns, portraying Grimes as a Presidential puppet, have already put his challenger on the defensive.

The McConnell-Grimes race will be one to watch for Republicans all over the country. The incumbent’s sound victory over Bevin and his unified front with Rand Paul are illustrative of a GOP that is gaining traction and gaining support from grassroots conservatives. It is often said that the Republican Party lacks the leadership necessary to provide a unified ideological platform to both its mainline candidates and grassroots conservative voters. But that idea presupposes a somewhat content electorate. As long as Democratic leadership remains mired in ineffectiveness and scandal, conservatives will have the motivation and blueprint to unite.