The Most Important Election of 2014

by Stuart Rothenberg October 24, 2013 · 11:08 AM EDT

So now we know.

The single most important election in the country next year won’t take place in Louisiana, Arkansas, North Carolina or Alaska. And it won’t occur next November, when voters across the country pick the next Congress. It will take place in Kentucky on May 20.

While the general election in the commonwealth — and in other states — could decide which party controls the Senate for President Barack Obama’s final two years in office, the GOP primary will go a long way in determining whether the Republican Party continues its evolution toward uncompromising utopian purity and, eventually, possible irrelevance.

I’m not yet certain whether Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, who will be the eventual Democratic Senate nominee in the Bluegrass State, would have a better shot of defeating Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell or his challenger, businessman Matt Bevin. I can make an argument either way. Remember, this is a state that elected Rand Paul to the Senate rather easily over a very formidable Democrat, Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway.

I do know that a Bevin victory would send another round of shock waves through the GOP, undermining pragmatic conservatives and producing another round of hand-wringing among party strategists whose job it is to try to win majorities in the House and Senate — and the presidency.

McConnell’s decision to broker a deal with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to end the government shutdown and raise the debt ceiling drew plenty of praise from members of the political establishment, who believed that a default would be catastrophic for the nation and would only add to the substantial damage that the Republican Party absorbed during the shutdown.

In the minds of many, McConnell had no alternative. Congress’ inability to raise the debt ceiling simply was too risky, so Kentucky’s senior senator did what leaders are expected to do: put their own political future at risk to save the nation.

It’s easy to vote against raising the debt ceiling, especially when your vote doesn’t matter. It’s easy to rant about how “our children” are being buried in debt. Just ask Obama. I’m sure McConnell wasn’t hoping that the buck would stop with him, but it did. And he acted like one of the few adults in the room.

But the folks at Heritage Action for America, the Senate Conservatives Fund, the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks and the Madison Project don’t see things that way.

The Club for Growth urged a “no” vote on the compromise and promised to include the vote in its 2013 scorecard. When the deal was first announced, Drew Ryun, the political director of the Madison Project and the son of former Kansas Rep. Jim Ryun, declared, “Today’s deal shows once again that the Senate Leadership, led by Mitch McConnell, knows nothing but capitulation.”

Capitulation, huh? That’s awfully tough talk from someone who runs an interest group, has no responsibility for the state of the American economy, and apparently doesn’t understand the difference between a suicide attack and an orderly retreat to live to fight another day.

McConnell’s defeat — or the defeat of other pragmatic conservative Republicans whose seats are up next year, including Sens. Pat Roberts of Kansas, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Thad Cochran of Mississippi (if he decides to seek another term) — would embolden additional tea party/libertarian challenges in 2016, further tearing the GOP apart.

Those in the “no compromise” caucus will respond that they are only trying to elect the most conservative candidates in the reddest of states. They understand, they say, that a true “constitutional conservative” can’t win in reliably Democratic states, so they didn’t look for primary challengers to Sen. Susan Collins of Maine or, last time around, Scott P. Brown of Massachusetts.

What they don’t seem to understand is that the increasing clout of people such as Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah make it more difficult for Republicans like Sens. Mark S. Kirk of Illinois, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and even Rob Portman of Ohio, to hold their seats in competitive or Democratic-leaning states.

In 2012, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee successfully demonized moderate House Republican candidates such as Connecticut’s Andrew Roraback and Massachusetts’ Richard Tisei by running against Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., and tea party influence in the GOP. So a party’s national brand can really matter.

Pragmatic conservatives will almost certainly rally to the defense of McConnell, Graham and others. But they must try to find a way to do so that doesn’t play into the hand of Heritage Action and its allies, who are just itching to run against “the establishment” and its efforts “to hold onto power.”

That won’t be easy to do. And, in fact, it may be impossible.

Given the anger at the grass roots, the Republican civil war may simply have to play itself out. A divided GOP may find a disappointing 2014 and a disastrous 2016 the only medicine available to break its current fever.