Did the Tea Party Actually Win?

A look through the headliners suggests, “no.” Rubio took Florida and Paul took Kentucky, but these expected wins exhaust tea party gains in most-watched races. Joe Miller in Alaska fell to Lisa Murkowski as a write-in. Sharron Angle, of course, substantially underperformed. Carly Fiorina and Christine O’Donnell went down as hard as expected. John Raese lost by double-digits in West Virginia, after being caught referring to his would-be constituents as “hicky.”

These last three races could have been won by almost any other Republican — a mainline Republican — but voters in these key states resoundingly rejected radicals in favor of professional, competent politicians. To make matters worse, those three wins, plus two more, could have flipped the Senate. Absent tea party “populism,” Republicans could be sitting on a 49-vote bloc, and waiting on the remaining undecided races to see whether they would either receive a 50/50 split, or a narrow majority.

Oh, and in New York’s 23rd, Doug Hoffman’s late drop-out deprived Republicans of an easy gain against vulnerable Democratic congressman Bill Owens. Hah!

It’s hard to say for certain how much tea party “populism” helped Republicans energize their voters, and win close races with mainline candidates. But the bloc’s ability to actually send one of its own to Congress seems, at least this morning, pretty disappointing. This puts tea party partisans in the familiar role, always occupied by conservative culture war partisans, of delivering elections for mainline Republicans, and then being disappointed, when the establishment inevitably turns its back on them. Seeing so many of her favorites go down also seriously blunts Sarah Palin’s star power. All in all, things could be much worse.


  1. No surprise here but your analysis is short-sighted. More than a few TP-endorsed candidates won yesterday. All three new female governors were endorsed by Palin. Jim Demint had their endorsement. John Boozman in Arkansas. Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania. There’s a long list of Representatives that had their endorsement. It was hardly a defeat because of a few senate races.

    The other thing you should keep in mind is that this is a movement that is only 2 years old. In that short time they got several high-level officials elected and had close races in several other locations. That’s a hell of a track record for 24 months of work.

    The question for the next two years is whether or not they have to temper their message in places like NY or DE or NV where they were able to win the primaries but couldn’t lock up the general election. As a mainline Republican my advice would be to do so but the TP folks believe in principle over party. They would rather stick to principles and try to persuade the public than water down their message and win. While I don’t always agree with that message – I can admire their dedication.

    1. principle over party… so they’re like a slightly more effective version of PUMA?

      1. Presidents over party is an old concept. Principle over party is a logical corollary. The notion also corresponds to Ames’ contention that the Tea party is not actually a ‘party’ at all but merely an attitude.

  2. Races like DeMint and Toomey don’t really impact my thesis. None of them were tea party-originated; they were experienced politicos who secured a fringe endorsement. Good for them. I suppose you’re right about the governors, but gubernatorial politics, too, is a very different game than the Senate. At the end of the day, there’s no support for the idea that the Republican party can take national races or national office without moderating their message. That’s a VERY good sign.

  3. I think it’s possible to both over- and underestimate the Tea Party, maybe even at the same time. On the one hand, it’s certainly impressive by any political standard what they’ve achieved in less that two years, even though the sentiments behind the movement existed way before then.

    But on the other hand: Will they be able to turn those achievements into actual political results? I doubt it, partly because many of their newly-elected candidates are political novices, which all else being equal is a serious disadvantage in DC. Partly because they’re as much in opposition to the mainstream Republicans as to the Democrats on a number of issues. And partly because considering their hardline rhetorics, they’ll have a real hard time making compromises, without which absolutely nothing will happen in the incoming Congress. Those three things make for a pretty bad combination in terms of practical politics.

    1. I think the two people to watch are Rubio and Paul. If they manage to secure a loud voice in DC and stick to TP principles, it will embolden other candiates. If they show up in Washington and McConnell suppresses them or worse, makes them tow the GOP line, then TP folks are going to be disheartened.

  4. You also had a VERY close race in several other states. It doesn’t take much tweaking of a message and a Harry Reid loses to Angle.

    Well, yeah, we all know that Presidential candidates moderate their message. Obama 2012 is certainly not going to be able to run on liberal mushiness. He’s going to have to act like a President and defend his record to a more conservative electorate. Can the TP secure more senate seats? Absolutely. Have we seen the end of these guys? Not by a long shot. As a result of yesterday they are going to have a much louder voice in 2012, not a weaker one.

    1. The Tea Party looks more and more like Ross Perot’s political organization. I forget what its actual name was (and too sleepy to wikipedia it up) but they had this kind of success too, where Palin = Perot. I know I know, this sounds weird, but gnaw on it for a moment.

      Based on this brilliant analysis (I joke, but I’m still serious) I expect they’ll swing hard in ’12 and, assuming they continue to make tough, principled stands, lose relevance after that…

      1. I don’t know what is going to happen with the Tea Party but I think there’s definitely a big move towards Independents. We are seeing their numbers increase with each election cycle. Joe Scarborough was speculating this mornign that we might have our first Independent president by 2016. That may be a bit of a stretch but the electorate is showing even now that neither party can count on their vote(unless you’re black then yeah, fairly predictable).

  5. Dick Turpis · ·

    I’m not convinced the appeal of the Tea Party is going to grow. One of the biggest reasons for Democratic losses yesterday was older voters abandoning them. But when those voters realize that the Tea Party’s message is “end Social Security and Medicare” they will turn on them in no time. Especially since the Tea Party in Congress is too small to accomplish anything, so they’ll have little to show for their tenure in a couple years.

    1. Dick – check the last 2 slides on this presentation. The GOP increased it’s margin across the board, not just with older voters.


      1. Dick Turpis · ·

        I know, but old folks were the most dramatic shift, the most reliably Democratic previously, and the ones who most seem to be actively voting against their interests by electing Tea Party candidates. Of course, it’s easiest for them to be against the new health care legislation because they already have their government-supported care, so they have the least to gain, in a way. I think that when they (and certain other demographics) wake up to what the Tea Party’s message really is, we’ll see a dramatic shift.

        1. But you also have an increasing margin of people that are furstrated with the whole system. And those same old voters will still (mostly) be around in 2012.

          1. Dick Turpis · ·

            Much of that frustration seems to be based on the poor economy (notably the job market) as well as a late realization that years and years of deficits aren’t desirable. In two years the economy should be on substantially better footing, which in turn well help control the deficit. Of course, it’s too early to say what the political landscape will be then, but I don’t think we can extrapolate a huge Tea Party surge from this one election.

  6. I think we’ll get an indication of the new TP candidates’ power very early in the new year when the regular increase of the federal debt ceiling comes up for a vote. That’s right in the middle of their anti-debt agenda, and in particular a senator like Paul has excellent opportunities to stall the process. I could see the TP in the House voting against it as well, probably breaking the party discipline.

    It’ll be interesting to see how Boehner and McConell will deal with it, and the outcome will say a lot about the relative power in Congress of the GOP mainstream and the TP’ers.

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