The Tea Party, Revisited

The Tea Party, Revisited
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Today, the 2014 primary season begins in earnest.  As with 2010 and 2012, there are a fair number of "Tea Party" challenges to Republican incumbents and establishment primary favorites. Today we see if establishment favorite Thom Tillis can clear the 40 percent benchmark in North Carolina and avoid a Senate runoff. Next Tuesday insurgent Senate candidate Ben Sasse (pictured, at right) will try to clinch the nomination in Nebraska. Primaries the following week in Kentucky and Georgia will test establishment moxie, while June will see key races in Iowa, Mississippi, and South Carolina.   Analysts are already preparing to declare the Tea Party dead or, in the alternative, to write the inevitable “Republicans pull defeat from the jaws of victory” storyline.

This is a tough column for me to write, because I agree with the general principle that Tea Party challenges have cost the Republican Party winnable races. I also agree that, over the long haul, there is an advantage for a party that nominates experienced candidates, who are less likely to see their candidacies implode over unforced errors.  So to be completely up front and clear: This shouldn’t be read as a generalized apologia for the Tea Party.

This is instead offered as a corrective to a narrative that has seemingly gotten out of control, and lost all sense of nuance.  When evaluating Tea Party challenges, I think there are four facts that have been lost in the conventional wisdom.

1. This Isn’t as New as Many People Seem to Think

The Republican Party establishment and its more conservative base have been at varying degrees of conflict for over a half century.  For a classic example of this, consider the 1952 Republican convention. As I wrote last summer:

When Republicans did win, in 1952, there was no makeover. Conservatives had argued for one, and backed Ohio Sen. Bob Taft for president, using terms that in many ways foreshadowed today’s anti-establishment Tea Party rhetoric. Everett Dirksen, shouting from the podium and wagging his finger at Tom Dewey (in the audience) argued for the seating of delegates critical to Taft’s campaign: “I stood with you in 1940. I stood with you in 1944. I stood with you in 1948, when you gave us a candidate [drowned out by crowd] . . . . To my friends from New York, when my friend Tom Dewey was the candidate in ’44 and ’48, I tried to be one of his best campaigners. . . . Re-examine your hearts [on this delegate issue] because we followed you before, and you took us down the road to defeat! Don’t do this to us!” (See it here starting at the 16:30 mark; note the fistfight that breaks out at the end of the speech, around the 20-minute mark).

You can look at Charles Sandman’s defeat of New Jersey Gov. William Cahill in 1973, or Jeffrey Bell’s defeat of New Jersey Sen. Clifford Case, or the 1996 trifecta of Wayne Allard, Al Salvi and Sam Brownback upsetting Colorado Attorney General Gale Norton, Illinois Lt. Gov. Bob Kustra, and Kansas Sen. Sheila Frahm (this prompted a front page story in Roll Call about whether Republicans had tacked too far to the right), and see prototypes of Tea Party/establishment fights.  Even 2008 saw Rep. Steve Pearce defeat the more moderate Rep. Heather Wilson in the New Mexico Senate primary.

I don’t mean to understate the magnitude of the most recent spate of establishment defeats.  But we should just remember that this tension has been around for a long time. We just have a catchy name for it now.

2. The Tea Party Has Had Its Fair Share of Successes

Lost in much of the shouting about the Tea Party is the fact that it really has had significant successes. It’s also true, as we’ll see below, that it has cost Republicans at least some Senate seats. 

But from a conservative perspective, Utah Sen. Mike Lee is a much better Senate pick than Bob Bennett was and Ted Cruz is superior to David Dewhurst. More importantly, Marco Rubio is far superior to Charlie Crist (who validated many Republican fears about him by switching parties), and Pat Toomey is far superior to Arlen Specter (who validated many Republican fears about him also by switching parties).  Without the Tea Party, Republicans would have Sen. Mike Castle instead of Sen. Chris Coons, but they would also have Sen. Russ Feingold instead of Sen. Ron Johnson.  In fact, I’m reasonably certain that without the Tea Party, Republicans wouldn’t have picked up 63 House seats.

In short, I’m not sure that there’s any way to get rid of the bad here without getting rid of the good for Republicans. I just think you have to account for both, even if you think (as I do) that it doesn’t work out to a wash.  It’s just closer to a wash than popular narratives surrounding the Tea Party would like to admit.

3. Establishment Failures

Let’s also remember that the 2012 elections weren’t just a Tea Party failure. The GOP establishment got its preferred candidates in Senate races in Montana, New Mexico, Virginia and Wisconsin. They all lost. 

Now, it is absolutely true that candidates in these states had a tougher climb than the “anti-establishment” candidates who lost in Missouri and Indiana. With the exception of Montana, Barack Obama was winning in these states, rather than losing handily as he did in Indiana and Missouri.

But the point is that we have to be very careful in assuming counterfactual results.  If Clint Didier had upset Dino Rossi in the 2010 Senate primary in Washington, we’d probably chalk that up as a “Tea Party defeat,” even though Rossi eventually lost.  If Mark Neumann had defeated Tommy Thompson in the Republican Senate primary in Wisconsin in 2012, it might be compared to Christine O’Donnell’s upset of Castle. Of course, we know that Thompson would go on to lose by six points.

To reiterate, I believe that Thompson and Rossi probably performed better than Didier or Neumann would have performed (though Neumann had come reasonably close to winning a Senate election in the bad GOP year of 1998). It’s just a reminder that we don’t know the counterfactual here, and our assumptions can often be incorrect.

4. Popular Perceptions of Tea Party Losses Are Too Harsh on Tea Party Candidates.

There are five major Tea Party losses in Senate races that are often cited by prognosticators: O’Donnell in Delaware, Ken Buck in Colorado, Sharron Angle in Nevada, Todd Akin in Missouri, and Richard Mourdock in Indiana. The only one of these that I would call a clear “what were they thinking?” move is Delaware Republicans’ choice of O’Donnell over former Governor and Rep. Mike Castle.

We might imagine two criteria for identifying a “Tea Party defeat.” The first is foreseeability -- could Republicans have seen the train wreck coming?  The second is certainty regarding the counterfactual, i.e., how sure are we that Republicans would have won with a different candidate choice?  Let’s look at each of the above races in order:

Christine O’Donnell. As I said, this is a clear example of the Tea Party shooting the ball into the wrong goal. The best that could be said here is that Castle was under 50 percent in late polls, and the president’s job approval was 57 percent on Election Day (O’Donnell actually only ran about three percentage points behind the president’s disapproval rating, and almost beat Coons among Independents). With that said, Castle almost certainly would be a senator today if he’d been the nominee, and many of O’Donnell’s problems were perfectly evident before she became the nominee.

Ken Buck.  This one is tougher.  We can say that Buck’s problems were foreseeable.  But would Lt. Gov. Jane Norton have won? The race was close enough that a candidate without Buck’s baggage probably would have carried the day.  But let’s also remember that Buck won Independents by 16 points; there wasn’t a whole lot of room for growth there. Now maybe Norton would have kept more Republicans in line, and maybe she would have run better than Buck did with women (Buck lost them by 17 points). But then again, she might not have done as well with men, whom Buck won by 14 points.  But this really does look like a “generic Republican” race here to begin with: The president’s job approval was 48 percent in Colorado on Election Day, and Bennett won 48 percent of the vote.

Perhaps most importantly, Buck’s defeat could also be blamed on the GOP establishment. Remember, the GOP planned on running former Rep. Scott McInnis as its gubernatorial nominee, but he imploded under the weight of a plagiarism scandal.  The only alternative candidate, Dan Maes, refused to drop out, and Republicans were left with a gubernatorial candidate who believed in a connection between bike lanes and an attempt to convert Denver into a “United Nations community.”  This in turn led former Congressman Tom Tancredo to enter the race as an Independent, splitting the Republican Party and giving additional targets for Democrats to use to boost turnout.

Buck probably cost the GOP the seat, but the goings-on in the gubernatorial race contributed to the defeat. And to be honest, Norton wasn’t exactly setting the world on fire in the primary.

Sharron Angle. Almost everyone believes that Harry Reid is a United States senator because the GOP opted to nominate Angle instead of Sue Lowden. Once again, her issues were largely foreseeable.  But I have a very low degree of certainty on the counterfactual here. This race was not particularly close: Angle lost by almost six points. 

Would Lowden have won? Perhaps. But remember, she made an infamous gaffe suggesting that people should barter chickens for their health care.  Her campaign was beset with serious problems from the beginning, and was slow to respond to the threat from Angle. Would she really have done better against a serious player like Harry Reid?  Jon Ralston, who knows Nevada politics better than anyone, is skeptical, and described Reid’s campaign as the best he’d ever seen.

As with Colorado, a GOP victory in Nevada really wasn’t inevitable.  Angle managed to win Nevada Independents, but the Reid campaign managed to create a surprisingly high minority turnout (something no one really saw coming; all public polls except one had Angle winning). This is something any GOP challenger would have had to deal with, and I’m not sure either of the alternatives (businessman Danny Tarkanian also ran for the seat) had what it would have taken to close the six-point gap.

Todd Akin. So of the 2010 bunch, I think that Christine O’Donnell almost certainly cost Republicans a seat, that Ken Buck probably cost the GOP a seat, and that Sharron Angle probably didn’t cost the GOP a seat. Let’s start 2012 with Missouri.  At the outset, I have a problem with classifying this as a Tea Party loss, unless you define “Tea Party” broadly, as “conservative candidate who harms him- or herself in the general election.”

That primary race pitted Akin, a five-term congressman from the St. Louis suburbs, against businessman John Brunner and former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman. Of these, it is probably hardest to make the case for Akin as the Tea Party candidate. His endorsements included Mike Huckabee, Phyllis Schlafly, Michele Bachmann, Steve King, Jim Jordan and Jeb Hensarling.  There are some Tea Party elements there, but it really has as much of a “religious right” profile as a Tea Party profile -- in fact, Huckabee has been at loggerheads with many of the anti-government Tea Party groups.

Steelman, on the other hand, had an actual endorsement from the Tea Party Express, as well as from Mike Lee and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. Brunner received endorsements from Sen. Tom Coburn, FreedomWorks, the Chamber of Commerce, and Ron Johnson.

This is reasonably complex, but at the end of the day Akin probably had the least Tea Party-friendly profile of the bunch -- 10 years in Washington and endorsements from none of the traditional Tea Party players. 

This also wasn’t an election where a clear establishment candidate was upset by an insurgent campaign.  At best, the establishment solidified behind Steelman, the Tea Party groups were split between Steelman and Brunner, and Akin snuck up the middle at the last minute.  Let’s also remember that Akin ran a quiet, low-profile campaign; while establishment Republicans were fretting over his potential victory, he didn’t show public signs of implosion until after his primary win; the foreseeability of his demise among the actual electorate was pretty low.

Richard Mourdock. As with Missouri, I think that the counterfactual here is reasonably clear: Had the electorate not nominated Mourdock, Democrats would be down a Senate seat (though Claire McCaskill’s 14-point victory margin should at least raise some eyebrows about how Steelman or Brunner would have performed).

With that said, Mourdock wasn’t the obvious train wreck that we see him as in retrospect. Unlike Angle, Buck and especially O’Donnell, Mourdock had a profile that was more akin to some of the more successful Tea Party candidates. He’d won statewide office, twice, with his initial win coming in the bad Republican year of 2006.

Mourdock faced a gifted Democratic challenger -- Joe Donnelly represented a swing area of the state, was pro-life, and (importantly) went to Notre Dame. (In fact, he was a “double domer.”) Mourdock was probably in trouble before he turned a straightforward question about abortion into an opportunity to muse about the problem of theodicy. But given his background, I’m not sure we can chalk his implosion up to his Tea Party profile. He wasn’t an inexperienced candidate.  He just made a horrific statement at an inopportune moment, as even gifted establishment candidates sometimes do (see George Allen in 2006).

Again, the drawbacks of an inexperienced candidate are real. There is a reason that I can count the number of candidates over the past two decades who didn’t hold prior elective office or run a major corporation before winning a Senate seat on two hands, with fingers to spare.

 It’s just meant as a reminder for those following these races that the track record of these candidates is far more complicated than the conventional wisdom would suggest, and it would be a mistake to write off any Tea Party primary victors (assuming there are any) immediately as the next Sharron Angle.

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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