In the driver's seat

In the driver's seat (L.A. Times/David Horsey / May 27, 2014)

Election year 2014 is the third time the Republican Party has hitched its wagon to the tea party. In 2010, angry tea partiers shouted down incumbents in town hall meetings, put Democrats into a defensive, crotch-covering crouch and delivered the House of Representatives to the GOP. In 2012, tea party zeal morphed into extreme stupidity and weirdness that freaked out moderate voters and wasted a Republican opportunity to win the Senate.

Now, two years later, the tea party is both chastened and more entrenched.

On the one hand, establishment Republicans have been bold in opposing and defeating tea party candidates. Last Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell trounced his well-funded tea party opponent in the Kentucky Republican primary. Other GOP incumbents who face challenges from tea party insurgents also look safe in their seats. The push by tea party-affiliated PACs to bring them down has, apparently, run out of gas.

One the other hand, the ideological gap between tea party purists and so-called establishment candidates has narrowed. The movement may have lost some electoral mojo, but finding a dime's worth of philosophical difference between the tea party and the regular party is not an easy task.

My LA Times colleague Doyle McManus asked anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist where all that tea party energy has gone and his answer was, "It went to Congress." Moderate Republicans are a vanished breed, Mr. Norquist said. "The Republican Party has largely absorbed the message of the tea party movement."

The so-called civil war in the GOP may now amount to little more than an argument over tactics. Tea party novices remain eager for the glory of doomed assaults on the bastions of liberalism while veterans like Speaker of the House John Boehner are fed up with losing and looking like amateurs. After letting the tea party faction in his caucus nearly run the country off the cliff with the government shutdown last fall, Mr. Boehner now openly disdains their lack of political acumen.

But for voters who don't care much about the inside machinations of politics, the bottom line is that the Republican brand is more purely conservative than ever. Long-time incumbents still own the truck, but, ideologically, the tea party is very much in the driver's seat.

Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David Horsey is a political commentator for the Los Angeles Times. Go to latimes.com/news/politics/topoftheticket/ to see more of his work.