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Tea Party Still Winning GOP Debate

Image: Ted Cruz

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks at the Conservative Political Action Committee annual conference in National Harbor, Md., Thursday, March 6, 2014. Thursday marks the first day of the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, which brings together prospective presidential candidates, conservative opinion leaders and tea party activists from coast to coast. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) Susan Walsh / AP

Why the Tea Party is still winning… And why GOP incumbents are going to have to fight tooth and nail to hold on to their jobs… Attitudes about the health-care law are more nuanced than the political debate might suggest… February jobs report is better than expected: 175,000 jobs created last month, unemployment rate ticks up to 6.7%... Ukraine: Not as divisive of a political subject as you might think… Previewing CPAC’s Day 2 and recapping Day 1… And best of luck, Domenico -- we’re going to miss you.

FIRST THOUGHTS.

Why the Tea Party is still winning:

Yes, some of the more prominent establishment Republicans (John Cornyn, Pete Sessions, Greg Abbott) won their primaries on Tuesday. And, yes, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell seems well positioned to win his in May. But if you want to see signs that the Tea Party is winning right now -- and that McConnell and other Senate Republicans facing primary challenges possibly will have to fight for their political lives -- just look what has transpired over the past week. While Cornyn won his primary and avoided a run-off, 41% of Texas Republicans still voted for someone else, including Rep. Steve Stockman, who ran a non-existent campaign (can you run a NON-campaign?). In other words, more than 4 in 10 GOP voters broke against the No. 2 Senate Republican, even though he hasn’t committed any ideological offenses (other than recruiting Charlie Crist for the Senate in 2009). Then look at the other results from Texas: The VERY conservative Dan Patrick seems poised to become the state’s next lieutenant governor, and a handful of incumbent GOP state legislators lost to primary challengers. And then yesterday, we saw McConnell raise a rifle at CPAC, suggesting that he needed a stunt to win over the conservative crowd. (The New York Times’ Jonathan Martin speculated that McConnell brought a gun, in part, because that would preempt any boos from the audience.)

And why GOP incumbents are going to have to fight tooth and nail to hold on to their jobs:

Why are we pointing these things out? Because if you thought Sen. Lindsey Graham was going to coast in his June 10 GOP primary, you need to think again. If 41% of Texas Republicans voted against Cornyn when he was facing a clown-car of candidates, how many South Carolina Republicans will vote against Graham, who has voted for President Obama’s Supreme Court picks and been a key author of comprehensive immigration reform? Bottom line: Lindsey Graham, Mitch McConnell, Pat Roberts, and Thad Cochran look MORE vulnerable today than they did last week.

Attitudes about the health-care law are more nuanced than the political debate might suggest:

We got our hands on a health-care survey conducted by NBC/WSJ pollsters Peter Hart (D) and Public Opinion Strategies (R) that paints a MUCH MORE nuanced political view of the health-care debate than many might think. The poll shows that the health-care law is still unpopular (34% say they support it, versus 45% who oppose it), and Republicans have the advantage in the political environment (42% prefer a GOP-controlled Congress, 41% want a Democratic-controlled one). But the poll also finds that most of the law’s provisions (insurers can’t reject people because of pre-existing conditions, parents can keep their children on their plans through ages 26) are very popular, although the BIG exception here is the law’s mandates. Indeed, after respondents hear these details of the law, it becomes more popular (39% support it, 41% oppose). And then there’s this finding: Only 28% of respondents believe the law should be totally eliminated; 54% say it should be fixed; and 17% say the law should be kept in place as is. If you wanted to know why many Republicans are beginning to back away from repeal, here’s your answer.

February jobs report: 175,000 jobs created last month, unemployment rate ticks up to 6.7%:

Reuters on the better-than-expected jobs report: “U.S. job growth rose more than expected in February, which could ease fears of an abrupt slowdown in economic growth and keep the Federal Reserve on track in reducing its monetary stimulus. Employers added 175,000 jobs to their payrolls last month after creating 129,000 new positions in [January], the Labor Department said on Friday. The unemployment rate, however, rose to 6.7 percent from a five-year low of 6.6 percent.”

Ukraine: Not as divisive of a political subject as you might think:

It’s important to note that Ukraine isn’t really that divisive of an issue, despite some of the rhetoric you’ve heard over the last few days. (Remember, the loudest and more controversial voices always get more attention.) Example: House Speaker John Boehner yesterday said he supports the limited sanctions announced Thursday to freeze assets and block visas, NBC’s Frank Thorp notes. “We remain committed to working with the administration to give President Obama as many tool as needed to put President Putin in check and prevent Russia from infringing on the sovereignty of any of its neighbors." Boehner also pens a Wall Street Journal op-ed offering this response to Putin and Russia: The U.S. should produce even more natural gas. “The U.S. has abundant supplies of natural gas, but in stark contrast to Russia, the amount of natural gas we produce and export barely scratches the surface of its potential. That's attributable in large part to the U.S. Department of Energy, which maintains an approval process that is excruciatingly slow and amounts to a de facto ban on American natural-gas exports—a situation that Mr. Putin has happily exploited to finance his geopolitical goals.”

Previewing CPAC’s Day 2 and recapping Day 1:

Today is CPAC’s second day, and the major speakers are Rick Perry (who goes at 9:00 am), the aforementioned John Cornyn (9:16 am), Mike Huckabee (10:23 am), Rick Santorum (2:26), and Rand Paul (2:51 pm). As one of us wrote yesterday, CPAC’s first day revealed a split among Republican leaders about their visions for the future of the party. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, argued that past Republican presidential nominees have lost because they weren’t conservative enough. "Y'all remember President McCain? President Romney? Those are good men, decent men, but when you don't stand a draw a clear distinction, when you don't stand for principle, Democrats celebrate.” Rep. Paul Ryan, who was Mitt Romney’s 2012 vice-presidential running mate, had a slightly different take: The GOP needs to become a bigger tent by winning over more Americans. “A majority party welcomes debate. It brings people in. It doesn’t burn heretics. It wins converts,” he said. And New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie -- who has won election twice in his blue state -- had a different recommendation for the conservative audience: Just win, baby. “We don't get to govern if we don't win,” he said. “Let's come out of this conference resolved to win elections again.”

What demographic problems?

The first day of CPAC also revealed this: The conservative movement doesn’t seem to be addressing its demographic problems. A picture of this nearly empty room was taken during CPAC’s panel on minority outreach. What’s more, almost every major speaker on Thursday and Friday is a man (Cruz, Toomey, Ryan, McConnell, Bolton, Christie, Jindal, Rubio, Lee, Scott, LaPierre, Trump, Perry, Cornyn, Huckabee), although Sarah Palin speaks on Saturday. Yes, Cruz, Rubio, Scott, and Jindal are minorities, but the lack of female speakers has been pretty jarring. On the other hand, NBC’s Mike O’Brien reported that the CPAC’s panel on immigration was well-informed, respectful, and representative of diverse views, but he also said it was attended by just about 50 people.

Best of luck, Domenico. We’re going to miss you:

Finally, it’s a bittersweet moment here at First Read and within the NBC Political Unit: Domenico Montanaro -- whose name has graced the byline above over the past seven years -- is leaving NBC News to lead the PBS NewsHour’s political coverage. We couldn’t be prouder of Domenico and everything he has helped build here. What a ride we’ve all had together -- 2008, 2010, 2012, now, and everything in between. But we’re also sad to lose such a great colleague and friend. Best wishes, Domenico!!!