FORTUNE — Tactically, the Republican establishment is routing the Tea Party. The insurgency’s backslide has been apparent all year, as its handpicked challengers to GOP incumbents failed to gain traction, groups representing it in Washington overreached, and the deficit concerns stoking its base waned. But yesterday, the “backslide” slid right back off a cliff. Tea Party-backed candidates in three key primary races suffered decisive losses in Kentucky, Georgia, and Idaho.
With the handwriting on the wall, deep-pocketed conservative sponsors huddled last Thursday and stewed over how to force the GOP to double down on hard-right policy positions. Those include opposition to a big immigration deal, same-sex marriage, and abortion rights — issues toxic to the imperative of broadening the party’s demographic coalition. But the movement’s electoral drubbing suggests its grip on the Republican agenda may finally be breaking.
The question is what will replace it. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, one of the big victors in yesterday’s contests, was explicit with Fortune earlier this year that Senate Republicans will not unify behind a governing vision before the November midterms. And even if a more moderate brand of Republicanism is ascendant, the term itself remains relative — and murky.
McConnell himself ducked the Teabaggers, as Fortune points out, but he still has to deal with the herd of cats in the Senate (and the House) that have managed to survive the apocalypse.
The Teabaggers rose as a result of (ginned up) anger at escalating deficits and government debt, both of which President Obama has reined in. Indeed, the 2012 election showed that Teabaggers were desperately looking for good electoral news and find precious little to rally behind, Obama had done such a good job of mastering the economy and re-energizing the debt reduction machinery.
This left the Teabaggers with very little left to unite behind: you had economic stalwarts who couldn’t give a rat’s ass about social issues combined with social conservatives who saw debt as a moral problem consistent with what they saw as the moral fall of the nation. Pulling the economic rug out from underneath them actually left the factions at odds with each other: some wanting to rein in the corporatocracy as being directly in conflict with “morality,” while others wanting to let the free market run unfettered.
This leaves the GOP in a real pickle: they sacrificed long term relevance in choosing a sprinter of a horse to hitch their wagons to. Sure, they took the short game in 2010, and might possibly stagger across the line in 2014 in control of both houses of Congress, but they will still be left with two very ugly dilemmae.
They’ll still be trying to thwart a sitting President (shades of Bill Clinton) and still be running ugly smear campaigns against such things Americans take for granted now, like abortion and immigration reform, same-sex marriage and legalized marijuana. Indeed, they are pretty much in the same place they were 20 years ago, only much more badly wounded in the mainstream ideologic viewpoint.
Should they take the Senate and maintain the House leadership – both looking iffy at this point – it will have been a Pyrrhic victory at best. In order to keep the House the GOP will have to tack hard right. To gain the Senate, they will have to slip into the middle somehow. While gerrymandering has made keeping the House the more plausible scenario, demographic changes make taking the Senate while half their campaigns whine about Latinos and liberals a really difficult challenge.
If the Teabagger immolation is any indication, people across the nation are tired of no solutions masking as the help the country needs.