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Primary Schooled: GOP Voters Snub Tea Party for Old Guard

Tuesday's contests marked a significant shift in thinking among Republican voters that winning in November matters more than ideological purity.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's victory in Kentucky, plus the upcoming runoff between GOP Rep. Jack Kingston and businessman David Perdue in Georgia, represent something much more than wins for the "Republican establishment" over Tea Party insurgents.

They signal a significant shift in thinking among Republican voters that winning in November matters more than ideological purity.

In 2010, then-Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., summed up the attitude among many conservatives after Republican senators like Arlen Specter and Dick Lugar broke ranks to support parts of President Barack Obama's agenda: "I’d rather have 30 Marco Rubios in the Senate than 60 Arlen Specters."

Translation: Purity, not necessarily political power, is the primary goal.

That attitude -- and energy -- helped the GOP win back the House of Representatives later that year, as well as pick up six U.S. Senate seats. But it also produced a line of unelectable Republicans in general elections from 2010 to 2012: Christine O'Donnell (Delaware), Sharron Angle (Nevada), Joe Miller (Alaska), Ken Buck (Colorado), Todd Akin (Missouri) and Richard Mourdock (Indiana).

But so far this year, Republican primary voters have lined up behind the candidates that the party believes are the strongest for the general election in November.

In North Carolina, House Speaker Thom Tillis earlier this month won the GOP Senate nomination over arguably other more conservative (and potentially flawed) candidates. And that’s now followed up by McConnell’s win in Kentucky and Kingston and Perdue finishing in the Top 2 in Georgia.

Brad Dayspring of the National Republican Senatorial Committee argues that the primaries should test which Republican candidates have the stronger organizations and the better campaigns -- and thus make the better general-election candidates.

“That was the case in North Carolina. It looks like the case in Kentucky. And it looks like it will be the case in Georgia,” Dayspring told NBC News.

“Establishment” here hardly means moderate or RINO -- “Republican in name only.” After all, as House speaker, Tillis helped push through some of North Carolina’s conservative abortion and voter ID laws. In Georgia, both Perdue and Kingston oppose comprehensive immigration reform. And in Kentucky, of course, McConnell has been one of the Obama White House’s chief obstacles in the Senate.

But Republican strategists view them as more electable candidates -- certainly more so than the Christine O’Donnells, Sharron Angles, and Todd Akins.

And conservatives are already getting on board. “The reality is that it will be Mitch McConnell or [Democrat] Allison Grimes come November,” wrote prominent conservative Erick Erickson, who had been backing McConnell’s primary opponent Matt Bevin. “And I sure as hell don’t want Allison Grimes.”