WASHINGTON (USA TODAY) -- Maybe the GOP establishment has figured out the Tea Party.
Voters sided with business-oriented, mainstream Republicans in key states Tuesday night, picking nominees who have a better chance of winning in November than some Tea Party insurgents of he past. By doing so, the GOP is fielding a team that could help the party reclaim the power that eluded them in the 2010 and 2012 elections.
Some lessons learned from the most consequential primaries to date:
Republicans can outfox their own: Call it the Orrin Hatch Rule, named for the Utah senator who won a seventh term in 2012. When conservatives on Hatch's right came out hard to defeat the veteran GOP lawmaker, he focused early to win their support. The same can be said for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who assiduously courted his Kentucky colleague (and Tea Party darling) Rand Paul and hired a campaign manager with Tea Party cred.
McConnell easily beat challenger Matt Bevin to win renomination, but the tougher test will come in the general election against Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes. Now, McConnell "has to establish a certain amount of political distance from his Tea Party opponent but at the same time try to demonstrate that he embraces some of their key issues," said Ernest Yanarella, chairman of the political science department at the University of Kentucky.
Business and centrist groups were ready: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce was a big winner Tuesday night, backing McConnell and successful candidates in Georgia, Idaho, Oregon and Pennsylvania. The National Realtors Association and National Retail Federation also helped eight-term GOP Rep. Mike Simpson in Idaho beat back a Tea Party challenger.
Former Ohio congressman Steve LaTourette, head of the Defending Main Street PAC that also helped Simpson, said "the game is up" on conservative groups that are going after GOP incumbents. Tea Party ally Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks for America, which was out to defeat McConnell, argues that conservatives have won the war. "It's clear that there is a larger cultural shift happening here," Kibbe said.
Personal wealth was helpful: In Georgia, former Reebok and Dollar General CEO David Perdue spent more than $2 million of his own money to become the top-vote getter in a crowded GOP field for Senate. Will Perdue be spending freely in his July 22 runoff against 11-term Rep. Jack Kiingston, who was backed by the Chamber? Georgians expect the run-off will be an expensive barn-burner that could help Democrat Michelle Nunn claim the seat of retiring GOP Sen. Saxby Chambliss in the fall.
"Both of the candidates who make the run-off will go in and spend every nickel they can lay their hands on," said Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia. "Come July 23, the Republican nominee will come limping out. The challenge will be that whoever wins will have to put the party back together."
In the most competitive Democratic race of Tuesday night, businessman Tom Wolf spent about $10 million of his own money to win his party's nomination for Pennsylvania governor. The former Revenue secretary for Gov. Ed Rendell blanketed the airwaves early and introduced himself to voters across the state. Wolf easily defeated Rep. Allyson Schwartz, the early Democratic primary favorite, and two other candidates for the right to take on vulnerable GOP Gov. Tom Corbett in the fall.
Game on for November: In Kentucky, Georgia, Arkansas and Oregon, voters on Tuesday set up general election battles that could help determine which party controls the Senate. Republicans need a net gain of six seats to oust Harry Reid and the Democrats from power.
Business and Tea Party groups are betting on GOP Rep. Tom Cotton in Arkansas to unseat Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas. Both were unopposed in Tuesday's primary. Surgeon Monica Wehby is being touted as a viable candidate against freshman Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley in Oregon -- which only recently became a race to watch. Even though there is a GOP runoff in Georgia, both Perdue and Kingston are considered stronger candidates against Democrat Michelle Nunn than their Republican rivals.
Justin Barasky, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said the outcome Tuesday in the GOP primaries will help his party. "Unlike 2010 and 2012, in order to avoid losing to the Tea Party, Washington Republicans have embraced their candidates and policies," Barasky said. "It's a good strategy in the primaries, but not in the general election."