The "hostile takeover" of the Republican Party by the Tea Partiers continues apace. Except, of course, where it doesn't. Like much else about the entire Tea Party movement, it's hard to pin down exactly what is going on and what it all means. Which, of course, doesn't stop us pundits from trying! Ahem. But, other than making life interesting for the political chattering classes, the real question is now (as it has always been): will the Tea Partiers wind up being a net positive or a net negative for the Republican Party, especially when it comes to Senate races?
The answer, as with all things Tea Party, is (once again): "it's hard to be sure." We won't really know until after the midterm elections, and at that point so much "spin" will be on the airwaves one might (if one grew up in Kansas, for the sake of argument) be excused the immediate impulse to run for the tornado shelter in the backyard. In other words, even after the elections, the answer is going to depend on who is doing the answering.
What it all boils down to is a very old political calculus: do the voters want 100 percent "pure" candidates, or are they more interested in the candidate with the most "electability" in the general election? This is a teeter-totter which both major American political parties are forced to ride, at times, I should point out. Think of how Joe Lieberman last got elected, on the Democratic side, to see the uncertainties these clashes give rise to.
The only safe bet, in looking at the Tea Partiers versus Republicans, is that after the election very few people are going to do analysis that is in-depth enough to really figure out what happened. Because to truly gauge the impact of the Tea Party, you'd have to examine all the races where Tea Partiers lost the primary to an establishment Republican candidate, as well as those where the Tea Partier won the primary in an upset. Which, as I said, not many people are going to take the time to do.
There are really five main ways these races could shake out. The first two would be a Republican establishment candidate (likely an incumbent) who fends off a Tea Party challenge in the primary, and then goes on to either lose or win against a Democrat in November. The second two would flip the primary results -- a Tea Partier wins the primary, and subsequently either wins or loses to a Democrat in the general election. And the fifth possibility is the "wild card" race where the loser of the primary (whether a Tea Partier or Republican) mounts a third-party bid. Actually, I guess that's really six choices, or even eight, depending on how you count. You can see why nobody's going to bother to do such analysis post-election-night.
Yesterday's results really only showed one thing with any clarity -- Sarah Palin is definitely going to run for president. She's been testing out her clout in the primaries, and whether her clout wins some races or loses some races, the big honking important thing (to her, at any rate) is that everybody in the media is raptly paying attention. Major news sites not only have their traditional red/blue maps of the individual races to see the state of the polling, most of them have also now added a "Sarah Palin pick record" map as well. If you think about that for a minute, it really is kind of stunning. Nobody else in politics, that I can remember, has ever gotten the media to examine their "picks" with such microscopic detail -- Democrat or Republican. But aside from the elevated media profile all of this gives to Palin, it also means that any of Sarah's picks (be they "Mama Grizzlies" or not) who actually win their general election will be in Palin's debt on the "political backscratching" scale of things. This is called building a base of support within the party. And building such a base is a crucial step towards gaining the party's presidential nomination next time around.
But, Palin aside, let's get back to the Tea Partiers and their effect so far on the midterm elections. Republican incumbents, in this so-called "anti-incumbent year" are still steadily chalking up primary wins over Tea Partiers in many states. The most striking of these last night was in Arizona, where Senator John McCain successfully fended off a Tea Party candidate (Sarah Palin, wisely, chose her former running mate in this race, rather than the upstart Tea Partier). But (proving that even when you try to put Palin aside, she just keeps on rearing her head, so to speak) Palin may pull off a stunning victory in Alaska, where Senator Lisa Murkowski looks (at this point, this will likely take a while to finalize) like she has lost her primary to a Palin-endorsed Tea Party upstart. As I said, whenever looking for easy answers to the Tea Party, mostly what you wind up finding is contradiction, on a state-by-state level, mostly due to the Tea Partiers' inherent decentralized nature.
But most Republican incumbents and establishment candidates who have won their primaries will likely win their general elections as well, in solidly-red states. There may be a race where this isn't so, but I have yet to notice one. McCain, for instance, will likely coast to re-election. So there's not much to be learned from the establishment Republicans one way or the other, I suppose.
The Tea Partiers who have won their primaries are much more interesting. The states they're competing in can be broken down into "so solid red a ficus plant would win the general election if it had an (R) next to its name," and "truly a battleground state where the nominee is going to make a difference, one way or the other."
An example of the first would be Utah, one of the first states where Tea Partiers "claimed a scalp" in the primary season. In states such as these, winning the primary is, essentially, winning the election. Alaska, if the Tea Partier winds up winning the Senate nomination there, is another of these states, where a Democrat (any Democrat) has to be seen as the longest of shots this year (and, in Utah's case, "any year").
Then there are states which really (by all rights) should be comfortably in the Republican column this year, but due to having nominated Tea Party candidates, now are seen as competitive by Democrats. Such states include Nevada, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Colorado.
In Nevada, Harry Reid should (by all rights) be trailing his Republican opponent by 10-15 points in the polls (Harry's approval ratings in the state are pretty dismal). Instead, Reid is either neck-and-neck or actually leading Sharron Angle in the polls. His ad campaign would be a good one for other Democrats to emulate this year, as it consists of showing Angle quotes, and then concluding: "Angle is TOO EXTREME for Nevada."
Kentucky may be the biggest win for Tea Partiers, if Rand Paul pulls it out. This is the most likely outcome today, but again, this state is "in play" when by all rights it should be an easy pickup for Republicans. Colorado and Pennsylvania races are similarly a lot closer than they really should be.
This is what the inside-the-Beltway establishment Republicans have always been afraid of when confronted by the Tea Partiers. Sure, the Tea Party folks generate enthusiasm out the wazoo for the party's base voters, but they do have a tendency to take the political rhetoric a bit farther than independent suburban voters may be all that comfortable with. The question remains whether the additional base enthusiasm will be enough to counter the weakened support from independents which Republicans might otherwise have won over this year.
The last category (where a third-party bid complicates the race) is the most wide-open, although so far it seems to have only happened (in a major way) in two races: Florida's Senate race, and the governor's race in Colorado. In Florida, Charlie Crist was essentially forced out of the Republican Party by a Tea Party upstart. Reading the tea leaves before the primaries, Crist announced an independent bid (which guarantees him a spot on the general election ballot, and sidesteps the primary itself). The bad blood between Crist and the party may mean that, should he win, he will join the Democratic caucus in the Senate, and not the Republicans. This would, in effect, hand one more Senate vote to Democrats, in a year where they're not slated to "pick up" many such votes (Crist's may wind up being the only one, in fact). But Crist is so popular, and the Democratic candidate is so weak, that Crist may actually win in November. In Colorado, the independent bid of Tom Tancredo may effectively split the Republican vote for governor, and wind up handing the race to the Democrat.
Meaning, in Florida, a moderate might win and provide a pickup seat for Democrats; and in Colorado, Republicans may be throwing away what could be an easy governorship by intra-party squabbling.
None of this is written in stone, however. Things change, and the election season has yet to truly move into high gear. There are likely to be some high-profile Tea Party wins this November, and likely a few true fire-breathing Tea Partiers in both houses of the next Congress. Which is, of course, where it gets interesting (for policy wonks), and either dreadfully boring or downright disillusioning (for political neophytes) -- the hard, cold reality of how slow things move in Congress, and how incremental any changes are likely to be. Even if we wind up with Senator Rand Paul (or even Senator Sharron Angle), Republicans aren't going to all immediately rally around the crazier of their policy ideas (such as fiddling with existing Constitutional Amendments, or abolishing whole federal departments or programs).
The biggest wedge for Democrats (who should be using this much more effectively than they have, to date) is going to be the Bush tax cut debate which will happen before this November's election. Because the Tea Party's main two goals are mutually exclusive -- cutting taxes and balancing the budget. But that's a column for another day (Friday, perhaps).
The answer to the basic question of how the Tea Party's hostile takeover of the Republican Party is going to play out, both this year and beyond, remains to be seen. The results may be murky, where the Tea Partiers ride to victory in some states, but scare off independents so much in others that Republicans wind up losing races they should have won. The media will go along with the whirlwind of spin which will inevitably ensue, in one direction or the other. But the real question (that only history will be able to answer) is whether the Tea Partiers will be seen in hindsight as a revolutionary political force within the Republican Party, or perhaps no more than Mad Hatters from a different kind of tea party.
Cross-posted at The Huffington Post
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-- Chris Weigant