WASHINGTON — What is going on in the Republican Party? The party’s Tea Party wing was ascendant, then crashed after fielding some truly strange candidates during the last few election cycles. Then, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex., seemed to give the Tea Party legitimacy with their more normal-by-comparison personas. Even so, Republican regulars continued to believe the movement had been relegated to the status of a minority wing of the GOP.
And so it seemed when Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., sailed to victory in his state’s primary election, soundly defeating a Tea Party challenger. Defending his stance favoring immigration reform, Graham even announced, “I’m not a Rand Paul Republican, I’m a Ronald Reagan Republican.”
Graham’s win should have reassured Republicans that there is still room in the party for elected officials who work across the aisle to find solutions to common problems. On the other hand, Graham did take every opportunity to bang the drum on Benghazi, and he rushed to the cameras last week to say President Obama committed an impeachable offense in failing to alert Congress within 30 days of the recent prisoner swap that had inflamed so many in the GOP.
The reason Graham won so easily in his bid for reelection is that he knows the difference between political rhetoric and core principles, and his constituents knew where he stood in both arenas. Red meat rhetoric is fine, but he didn’t straddle the fence on immigration.
Meanwhile, in Virginia, it was no such luck for Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who saw his political career come to an end in a primary that everyone assumed he would win. Victory was so certain that Cantor wasn’t in his Richmond district Tuesday rallying voters and visiting polling places. He was in a Starbucks on Capitol Hill helping raise money for other Republicans.
In Washington, Cantor was seen as a road block to progress on immigration reform, whereas in his district, he was seen as a traitor on the issue for floating the idea of legislation that would legalize “dreamers,” young people brought to the U.S. as children who have known no other country.
Cantor was trying to thread the needle between the Tea Party passions that all the anti-Obama rhetoric had unleashed, and the Wall Street Republicans whom he had assiduously courted since coming to Washington. His surprise defeat should be a lesson to Republicans that in trying to half-heartedly please both wings of the party, Cantor alienated everyone.
Ronald Reagan’s hero was Calvin Coolidge, president during the roaring twenties and perhaps best known for saying, “The chief business of the American people is business.” Coolidge didn’t say much, he was known as “Silent Cal,” but he solidified the GOP’s identification with big business, a connection that is now under assault from the tea party as “crony capitalism.” Cantor’s ties to Wall Street helped make him an effective fundraiser, but doomed his reelection among voters who see business elites as those rigging the game against them.
Now, with mainstream Graham’s victory and pseudo-mainstream Cantor’s loss, the GOP seems to be suffering from an identity crises, and, as if to put an accent on the point, the Republican members of the House just elevated Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., to replace Cantor as House majority leader. The handsome, congenial, famously tongue-tied politician, and a darling of the business community, is no Tea Party member. The American Conservative Union rated McCarthy’s conservatism at 72 percent vs. Cantor’s 84 percent.
And so the tide ebbs and flows between mainstream and tea party Republicans with no clear direction in sight.