The Tea Party Lost Badly In 2014, But It’s Not Going Anywhere
The death of the Tea Party is greatly exaggerated.
Guy Auxer at Practical Politicking argues that it’s time to nail the coffin shut on the Tea Party:
If 2014 were the test to see if TP-supported candidates could successfully win a primary against standing members of the Senate, I would have to give them a failing grade. What some fail to recognize is that the incumbent normally wins more than ninety percent of their races, which is why they seldom face competition from someone from within their own party. I mean seriously, if your party already holds the seat, why would you risk losing it when the battle is in full throttle is for control of the Senate?
One notable challenger was Matt Bevin in Kentucky. Not only was the Tea Party trying to unseat the Republican Senate Minority Leader, they failed to vet Bevin prior to throwing the weight of their words (if not their money) behind him. So neither they, nor their candidate, were prepared when it was discovered Bevin enjoys cockfighting. Silly me, I thought that only happens in third-world countries. Needless to say, his support plummeted like a barrel going over Niagra Falls.
Let’s go east a little to Louisiana to see how relatively easy it would be to unseat Mary Landrieu. Just find a good stand up conservative, with a solid five-year record in the US House of Representatives, someone like Bill Cassidy. The citizens of his district love him. He has name recognition, he’s a doctor, and he vocally opposes ObamaCare, whereas Mary Landrieu supports it. Piece of cake right? Not thanks to the Tea Party. They support retired Air Force Colonel Rob Maness, who has no record other than his military service. He has zero chance of unseating Landrieu. Polling data from RCP shows Cassidy in a head-to-head race against Landrieu, with Cassidy winning by an average of 4.6%, removing another Democrat from the Senate.
But the Tea Party doesn’t see it that way. They sent in their big guns, and are weighing how much they are willing to spend to help Landrieu keep her seat, because in a three-way race with Maness in the mix, Landrieu’s chances of winning are much better. If you’re a Tea Party supporter with common sense, how can you look at this race and not be very curious as to which party the TP is really supporting?
I could go on and on, listing other TP primary challengers, but I think I’ve made my point. What started as a conservative backlash against liberal spending has evolved into a purity test that seems geared more towards raising money for the Tea Party groups than to electing conservatives to office, never mind taking back the Senate.
With a win rate of fifty percent 2010, fourteen percent in 2012, and almost zero in 2014, I think it’s time to say goodbye to the Tea Party. I’ve seen enough, thank you.
There have been other notable Tea Party failures this election cycle beyond the ones that Auxer lists in his post. For example, there’s the abject failure to mount a credible challenge to Lindsey Graham in South Carolina despite the fact that he had been on the top of the target list of conservatives for years and was running in what is without question one of the most conservative states in the country. In Mississippi, national Tea Party groups threw their weight behind State Senator Chris McDaniel’s challenge to Senator Thad Cochran, which also fell short when Cochran managed to pull of a win in the runoff election thanks in no small part to smart campaigning and reaching out to voters that don’t traditionally vote in Republican primaries. Lamar Alexander easily beat back a Tea Party challenge in Tennessee. Milton Wolf failed in his challenge to Kansas Senator Pat Roberts, notwithstanding the fact that the campaign against Roberts utilized many of the same tactics that proved to be successful against Richard Lugar in Indiana two years ago. In North Carolina, the Tea Party candidate failed to defeat Thom Tillis for the Republican nomination for Senate. None of the candidates that had Tea Party backing in Georgia managed to make it to the runoff for the Senate nomination. And, finally, in Alaska, the Tea Party backed candidate lost to a candidate that largely had the backing of the state’s political establishment. To the extent the Tea Party has succeeded, it has been in the House where their candidates defeated former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Congressman Ralph Hall, who is presently the longest serving Republican member of the House of Representatives and Justin Amash beat back a well-financed challenge from Brian Ellis in Michigan’s 3rd District. For the most part, though, and looking exclusively at the Senate, 2014 has been nothing but a failure for the Tea Party.
Despite all of these defeats, though, I don’t believe that Auxer is likely to get his wish any time soon. The fact that the Republican establishment succeeded in pushing back challenges form Tea Party candidates to incumbents this time around, as well as doing a better job of selecting candidates for open seats in states like Montana, Nebraska, South Dakota, and West Virginia is obviously important. For one thing, it means that the GOP has a much stronger, more serious bench of Senate candidates this year than it did in either 2010 or 2012, especially in races where victory is within reach. That being the case, though, it seems fairly clear that the Tea Party movement, and more importantly the groups like Freedomworks, Senate Conservative Fund, and the Club for Growth that have built up powerful fundraising machines based off the Tea Party, doesn’t see itself as having been defeated. If anything else, they seem to see themselves as more powerful than they were before and while that may not make sense, it’s a perception that is likely to keep the movement just as strong as it was before the year started. Moreover, if the GOP does win the Senate as seems likely they will claim credit for the victory and begin pressuring the now more powerful Congressional Republican Party to enact an agenda. Combine that with the fact that the 2016 campaign will be starting almost as soon as the midterms are over, and you can guarantee that the Tea Party and the groups associated with it are not going away any time soon.
The other factor in this discussion, of course, is that while the Tea Party may have lost election battles this year, it has largely won the war inside the GOP:
[T]he reality is that the Republican Party has moved so much to the right at this point that it’s hard to tell the difference between “regular” Republicans and the Tea Party crowd. You can see evidence of this in how the GOP has governed since it won the House of Representatives in 2010. There have been numerous showdowns with the President over the budget, once of which resulted in a government shutdown because the Tea Party insisted on a completely impossible to achieve “defund” Obamacare plan. The House has voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act in whole or in part nearly sixty times over the past three and a half years. Despite the fact that many in leadership, and indeed many “regular” Republicans know that it is a good idea for the country and the party, immigration reform has died in the House for fear of offending the Tea Party base.
This poses serious problems for the Republican Party, of course, given the fact that public opinion polls show that on a whole range of issues, the Tea Party is completely out of step with the majority of the American people. In the end, though, the party establishment has nobody to blame but itself. They failed long ago to provide any kind of credible alternative to the harshest, most extreme voices in their party, and now those voices are the voice of the party. The consequences they suffer will be their own fault.
So, although sensible and sane Republicans may hope that 2014 will be the last they hear from the Tea Party, reality will likely prove to be quite different.