Weak Tea Party Showing and the Future of the Republican Party

Weak Tea Party Showing and the Future of the Republican Party

Among the many things we may be learning from Tuesday’s primaries is a simple but incredibly important fact: The potent electoral brew that the Tea Party movement brought us appears to be much less potent in 2014 than it was in 2010 (the last midterm election).

No, I haven’t examined every Republican primary in every U.S. Senate race and House district, let alone a number of other races. And yes, Tuesday’s primary isn’t exactly a nationwide scientific test of the Tea Party’s potency. So defenders of the “tea” may justly raise those objections to this analysis.

But Tuesday presented us with some interesting test cases. There was the failed (and perhaps always quixotic) attempt to unseat Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (though $1 million was spent by outside groups to support his Tea Party rival, Matt Bevin).  And there were the top two vote-getters in a crowded Georgia Republican U.S. Senate primary field, David Perdue and Jack Kingston, who outpaced the Sarah Palin-backed Karen Handel (the only one of the three previously to have held statewide office in Georgia) to claim the two positions for the runoff. While the campaign was full of claims and counterclaims about who was the most conservative, there’s not much question that the Republican establishment favored Mr. Perdue and Mr. Kingston . . . and it got what it wanted.

One interesting House race, that of Representative Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania  (who holds the same House seat his father, Bud Shuster, held for many years, and leads the same committee, Transportation, in the House), also shows both the power of the Tea Party movement to unnerve incumbent Republicans and, ultimately, its inability to unseat incumbents this time around.

So is this the end of the Tea Party?

A thoughtful piece by Karlyn Bowman and Jennifer Marsico posted to the Forbes website back in February made three telling points about the Tea Party movement, not in terms of who it helped elect, but in terms of public opinion. One, the percentage of people identifying with the Tea Party movement has been relatively stable for the whole of the Tea Party run (2010 to present). Slightly more than 10% of Americans consider themselves a part of the movement.

Two, there is similar stability in the percentage of the U.S. public that supports the Tea Party movement. It’s roughly a quarter of the population.

Three, where the Tea Party movement is in trouble is in overall positive to negative perceptions. The favorable percentage has run at roughly a third of the population since people first became familiar with the movement in early 2010. But the negatives are now significantly higher than that (though less than a majority of the whole, with the balance being made up by those who have neither a positive nor a negative perception of the movement, or don’t know what they think of it).

The thing about “movements” as opposed to political parties is that they don’t have to win to persist. Movements feed off of feelings and convictions. Volunteers pitch in because they care. Donors give because they are scared, or angry, or have had their heart strings tugged. The movement can keep on keeping on, inspiring the faithful, rattling the vulnerable.

Political parties, however, have to win. Otherwise, candidates won’t bother running. Voters, likewise, won’t waste votes . . . not most of them, anyway. It’s as simple as that.

So what I think Tuesday’s results tell us is that the “establishment” wing of the Republican Party has regained its footing and decided to be in charge. The money is there, as is the political experience. These folks are serious about winning, most especially winning the U.S. Senate in 2014 and the White House in 2016. They aren’t interested in being “pure”; they are interested in being powerful.

That’s no different than the leading voices on the Democratic side, where winning elections similarly is job one.

The answer to the fate of the Tea Party movement, then, probably depends more on whether it is, in fact, a movement, or an emergent political party.

I’m guessing movement. And I’m guessing it will persist, occasionally snatching a seat or a place on the ballot away from a vulnerable establishment Republican, making Republican primaries at all levels more interesting and giving Democratic Party operatives some “wonderful” sound bites to use to scare voters into voting against Republicans.

When Republican candidates can find ways to harness the movement’s energy without incurring its liabilities, they’ll do particularly well. But a “Tea Party” candidate, on balance, is not as likely to win a nomination as in 2010 or 2012. The “establishment” will see to that.

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