Sen. Lamar Alexander easily dispatched rival Republican Joe Carr in the Tennessee primary Thursday, completing a clean sweep for this year's Senate incumbents who faced intraparty challengers claiming the Tea Party label.
Yet while they were winless, the hard-core conservatives intent on selecting a Senate more to their liking this year were far from utterly defeated. All of the challenged GOP incumbents reacted to the pressure by working to reconfirm their credentials with conservatives. This held true even for those whose credentials should have been least in doubt.
Having induced this embrace of their policies and principles, the GOP's most conservative wing can surely claim a kind of success. And that claim can be shared by the populists who provided the votes as well as by the more organized entities that furnished the funding.
Meaningful as this rightward shift has been for the party and the Senate, the insurgent elements would have preferred to actually knock off a few of their targets. That would have meant more reinforcements for Rand Paul of Kentucky, Marco Rubio of Florida, Mike Lee of Utah and Ted Cruz of Texas the four freshmen who shouldered aside the candidates of the GOP establishment on their way to the Senate in 2010 and 2012.
At the start of the 2014 primary season, a group called the Senate Conservatives Fund, associated with the Heritage Foundation, set out to bolster and bankroll long shots against Republicans it considered insufficiently loyal to the cause. Also active on the fundraising front were groups such as Tea Party Express, FreedomWorks and The Madison Project.
At first, the movement seemed to have a decent stable of horses ready to run in states like Texas and Oklahoma, Kansas and Kentucky, Georgia and Arizona. But several of the early recruits proved distinctly disappointing. Others failed to generate competitive levels of donations. And in a few states, such as South Carolina, Tea Party votes were scattered among several challengers.
The anti-incumbent thrust was parried early in Kentucky, where Matt Bevin's once-promising bid against Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell fizzled in May. In the end, the closest the intraparty upstarts came was in Mississippi, where six-term veteran Thad Cochran needed two rounds of voting to fend off former state legislator Chris McDaniel (who is still contesting the outcome).
There is also some consolation in Ben Sasse of Nebraska, who won the GOP nod for a vacant seat. Sasse was backed by Cruz and Sarah Palin even though many Tea Party people in Nebraska preferred another candidate.
So why was this cycle so different from 2008 and 2010, when the Tea Party fever ran high and its favorites won primary after primary even unseating such stalwart Republicans as Robert Bennett in Utah and Richard Lugar in Indiana?
Let's tick off five big reasons: