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Who Won the Midterms?

Who won the midterm elections: the Republican establishment or the Tea Party?

Who won the midterm elections? I’m not talking about whether it’s Democrats or Republicans. Obviously, it’s the Republicans. But this is like that old joke about the Army general who reminds his officers to keep their eyes on the real enemy: the Navy. The real contest—which will kick into high gear the day after the election—is the battle between the establishment and the Tea Party.

The first shots were fired the day before the election, with a Politico piece in which Republican sources leaked all over the place about how they were planning to use the midterms as validation of the establishment.

With growing confidence as Election Day approaches, Republican leaders are preparing to argue that broad GOP gains in the House and Senate would represent a top-to-bottom validation of their party’s mainline wing. Having taken a newly heavy-handed approach to the primary season this year, the top strategists of the Republican coalition say capturing the majority would set a powerful precedent for similar actions in the future—not just in Senate and congressional races, but in the presidential primary season as well.

Let’s grant that Politico is spinning this like all get out, because the mainstream media always has an interest in stoking intramural conflict within the right.

As it turns out, it’s going to be hard for one group to claim credit over another. This is a wave so broad that it takes everyone with it. It carries decrepit and uninspiring establishment types like Kansas Senator Pat Roberts—the one who said he goes back to his home state “whenever I have an opponent,” confirming that his true place of residence is inside the Beltway—along with disruptive insurgents.

From where I’m sitting here in Central Virginia, the disruptive insurgents are looking pretty good. There is no purer Tea Party candidate in the country this year than our very own Dave Brat, a libertarian college professor who took on Mr. Republican Establishment, Eric Cantor, and defeated him in the primary for Virginia’s 7th congressional district. Brat cruised to victory tonight with more than 60% of the vote, and thanks to Cantor’s decision to leave office early and cash in on Wall Street, Brat can start his new job on Wednesday morning if he likes.

By contrast, Republican Senate candidate Ed Gillespie has to be considered a safe establishment candidate: a former congressional aide, Bush administration official, Republican National Committee chairman, and an expensive Beltway lobbyist. It has become an unfortunate aspect of Virginia politics—an artifact of the growth of the imperial capital and its Northern Virginia satrapies—that we are now being treated as a political extension of Washington, DC. So lifetime DC politicians think they can run for statewide office in Virginia without having to go through Richmond politics first.

Gillespie has done surprisingly well, and the race remains uncalled late into the night. But if the argument here is supposed to be about the superior performance of the establishment, this is not the best example.

Look elsewhere, and you can see governors who have taken controversial stands against public employees unions—Scott Walker in Wisconsin, Rick Snyder in Michigan—who were handily re-elected.

The wave of this year’s election is clearly a backlash against an unpopular president, and it is so broad it’s going to lift all kinds of boats. For crying out loud, a Republican won the governor’s race in Illinois. For all Republican factions, this is the time for a little modesty about how much of this is due to the brilliance of the professional consultant class and how much is due to larger forces way beyond their control.

And they would be wiser to address their attention to the question of how not to throw away the political advantages they have gained—a problem the Republican establishment has historically had a lot more trouble with. If the establishment can show us how they can solve that problem, then they’ll have something to boast about.

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