The Republican establishment thought it had found a way to handle Tea Party challenges. Then Eric Cantor was ousted in a primary. Photographer: Mark Wilson/Getty Images
The Republican establishment thought it had found a way to handle Tea Party challenges. Then Eric Cantor was ousted in a primary. Photographer: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The Tea Party, joined by right-wing populists who just don’t want to take it anymore, took out House Majority Leader Eric Cantor last week, and they didn’t even get a lousy T-shirt for their trouble.

Before you could say "Beltway," the third-ranking House Republican, Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, who supports giving legal status to undocumented immigrants and is a generally bluer version of the pro-business Cantor, was lined up to take over the No. 2 House leadership post.

Late in the game, an Idaho conservative, Representative Raul Labrador, began a halfhearted bid. But while McCarthy was speed-dialing members on their mobile phones, Labrador was going through the switchboard at individual offices. There’s still a chance conservatives will be thrown a bone and allowed to fill McCarthy's whip spot with one of their own, but Labrador doesn’t have a prayer.

The Tea Party

Despite its big win, what the Tea Party wing in Congress has is what it’s always had: the ability to say no, to wreak havoc and to generally make House Speaker John Boehner’s life miserable. But it hasn’t amassed the power to set the agenda. Insiders, while hampered, are still in control.

So does it matter how many primaries the Tea Party wins? Or does the establishment always come out on top? Before Cantor's upset, the narrative was that the Tea Party had been put back in its box and incumbents would carry the day. Now, the few contests remaining -- Mississippi, Kansas and a few table-turning House races in Michigan where the establishment is challenging Tea Party incumbents -- have become battles for control of the Republican Party's soul, or at least a few of its vital organs.

The establishment insists Cantor's defeat doesn’t mean the Tea Party is back. True enough, every loss has a list of personality-driven explanations: Cantor neglected his district, became too Washington-centric, went conference-hopping to Davos and Aspen, and a smirk was never far from curling his lip.

The onetime Republican star may be proof that you can over-gerrymander a district from being safely conservative to out-of-control conservative. The establishment likes pointing out that the Tea Party as an organization didn’t put its muscle behind Cantor's challenger, economics professor David Brat; it’s just claiming credit after the fact.

But Cantor was ousted by the Tea Party sentiment -- that amorphous collection of grassroots activists and populists, who are anti-many things, including big government, big business, immigrants, gays, big bankers and their bailout.

They vote Republican and vow to throw out the bums, but their definition of who's a bum has broadened. Right-wing voters are wising up. Sure, gays can’t get married, right-minded Americans can carry a gun to church if they want and there’s no amnesty for undocumented immigrants, but corporations are getting their way while mortgages are underwater. Maybe all the bums are vulnerable now for no better reason than their habit of dropping the little guy for the big guy in a heartbeat. That’s a big change.

That means Karl Rove and the Chamber of Commerce took their bow too soon. Incumbents withstood challenges in Kentucky (Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell), North Carolina (state legislator Thom Tillis beat a conservative in the Senate primary), and the two most right-wing candidates in Georgia didn't make it to the runoff for governor. But Tea Party candidates prevailed in Texas and Mississippi, and an obscure economics professor’s win in Virginia set off a storm. Suddenly, the story isn't the taming of the Tea Party, but putting the establishment on its heels.

The earlier narrative wasn’t right anyway. Republicans hadn’t overcome their "Tea Party problem." The party had woken up to its primary problem. Forewarned by earlier losses, party leaders weren’t bushwhacked by stealth Tea Party candidates who won low turnout primaries and then couldn’t win the general.

Instead, the establishment thought it had found candidates who were hard-line enough to co-opt the Tea Party, lavished money and consultants on them, and voila -- no more wacko birds a la Sharron Angle in Nevada, who blew the chance to defeat an unpopular Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in 2010. It looked like the ultra-right wing had been absorbed into the Republican bloodstream.

Not so fast. In the marquee races remaining, the chumps are showing they don’t want to be co-opted. In Kansas, incumbent Senator Pat Roberts, who doesn't seem to live in Kansas anymore, is up against a doctor who posts gruesome photos of gunshot victims on the Internet and has shot up 20 points in the polls.

There’s nothing wrong with Thad Cochran of Mississippi on social issues. What is wrong is that the six-term senator epitomizes the old way of bringing home the bacon by greasing a lot of palms that don't belong to the little guy.

Cochran's Tea Party opponent, Chris McDaniel, is a flawed candidate. His supporters broke into a nursing home to take a photo of Cochran’s ailing wife to give currency to the rumor that Cochran has a companion. McDaniel is also sympathetic to the neoconfederacy crowd and would return federal funds to the Treasury.

So be it: The Tea Party is willing to take the hit to end a way of doing business it thinks hurts the country. In any case, Mississippi voters are unlikely to elect a Democrat, no matter how imperfect the Tea Party candidate is. But life will go on in Washington. Republicans will co-opt their renegade faction, so long as they don't have to have them in the room when the door closes. The big hole left by Cochran in the leadership will be filled not by a Tea Partier but by another establishment Republican.

Former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said this week that the party should have been more humbled by Cantor’s defeat and that it showed hubris in elevating McCarthy.

“The grass-roots conservatives aren’t going to sit back and let this moment pass them by," he warned. "Whether that happens next week or in the next few months is the question.”

A few more victories and the Tea Party will have to get a seat at the table or break the table in two.

To contact the writer of this article: Margaret Carlson at mcarlson3@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net.