Robert Bennett: Many miles left to go before the race in 2016

Published: Monday, June 16 2014 1:10 p.m. MDT

Updated: Monday, June 16 2014 1:10 p.m. MDT

Last week was significant with respect to the race in 2016. Hillary Clinton sat down with Diane Sawyer for an extensive personal interview and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost his primary by a wide margin.

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Last week was significant with respect to the race in 2016.

First: Hillary Clinton sat down with Diane Sawyer for an extensive personal interview on national television, perhaps opening her run for the presidency. She discussed her new book outlining her accomplishments as secretary of state, described the accompanying book tour that will take her all across the country and then parried questions about her hair styles and Monica Lewinsky — “I wish her well” — among other things. She got a bit defensive when Benghazi was mentioned, but it was a professionally done, smoothly polished performance.

The media consensus: A shrewd step forward by an old pro, which will help her in the months ahead. I concur, but there are a lot of miles yet to go.

Next: House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost his primary by a wide margin, an upset that surprised everyone except those backing his opponent, David Brat. He beat Cantor by attacking him as a fair weather patriot who abandoned tea party orthodoxy after fully embracing it in 2010.

Statistically, Cantor’s defeat is minor, changing only 1 out of 435 members of the House, but psychologically, it’s huge. Having sustained five consecutive major losses — including the big one, their determined effort to knock off Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell — tea party organizations had almost been written off. Last week they lost a sixth, in South Carolina, where they were trying to punish Sen. Lindsey Graham for his willingness to dialogue with Democrats. Now, suddenly, with no effort on their part — they ignored Cantor’s race because they were sure he would win handily — they have the scalp of the sitting House Majority Leader on their belts. They are in the thick of the battle to see who will replace him in the upper reaches of Republican leadership. The tea party is back in the news as a power player.

The media consensus: A party in disarray. Again, I concur, but, again, there are a lot of miles yet to go. And work to do.

House Republicans are highly unlikely to take up the immigration reform bill passed by the Senate. Democrats will cite Brat’s win as the reason, highlighting the Republican failure to act as proof that Republicans don’t care about Hispanic voters. Polls continue to show that a comfortable majority of Americans (including a plurality of Republicans) are in favor of such a bill.

Will the perception that the tea party is dictating immigration policy damage the Republican ticket in 2016? Establishment Republicans are citing Graham’s win to show that such a perception is false, but, to be credible on this, they must work to see that a meaningful immigration bill passes in the next Congress.

They must also work to fill party offices at the local level with people who are dedicated to Republican victories. In Virginia, where the tea party has taken over, that is no longer the case. Ideological purity comes first. When I was in the Senate, Virginia was a reliable Republican state, with two Republican senators, a Republican governor and consistent Republican votes in the Electoral College. All of those positions are now filled by Democrats. At the moment, Virginia in 2016 looks as safe for the Democrats as California.

But things change. In 2007, no one other than Barack Obama’s team believed Hillary Clinton could be denied the Democratic nomination. In 2011, no one other than Orrin Hatch’s team believed he could survive the Republican convention. There are a lot of miles yet to go before 2016, and many more significant weeks ahead of us.

Robert Bennett, former U.S. senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.

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