As we enter into what political wonks call "primary season," the next few months are going to prove instructive as to the relative strength in the Republican Party of both the Tea Party and the Establishment Republican factions. The Tea Party rode high in the 2010 election cycle, and was again influential during the whole 2012 race, but one has to wonder if the luster of the Tea Party's shine is beginning to wear off -- even among Republican primary voters. The next few months will tell, as sitting Republicans either win their primaries or are dethroned by their Tea Party challengers.
This will be most important in the Senate races, once again. In the past two cycles, Republican voters have chosen enough Tea Party stalwarts (who then went on to lose very winnable general election races) to have changed the control of the Senate, after all. Some of them crashed and burned so spectacularly that even today we still remember their names and their gaffes (Todd "Legitimate Rape" Akin and Christine "I'm Not A Witch" O'Donnell, to name just two). Republicans need to gain six Senate seats, and (just as in 2010 and 2012) they've got a real shot at doing so. If, that is, they manage to pick candidates who can be counted on to not say outrageous things while campaigning.
This year, several Tea Party challengers seem to be crashing and burning early in the process. Mitch McConnell was supposed to have a tough primary fight against a Tea Partier, but his primary challenger seems to be fading fast in the polls (McConnell will still have a big fight in the general election, though). In Texas, Tea Party Senate candidate Chris Mapp just gave an interview to the Dallas Morning News where he unashamedly used the term "wetbacks" and declared that "ranchers should be allowed to shoot [them] on sight." In Kansas, the news broke this weekend that Milton Wolf, another Tea Party candidate for Senate, had in the past posted on Facebook X-rays of people with their heads blown off, complete with snarky commentary and jokes. Wolf and Mapp would surely have joined the ranks of Akin and O'Donnell if these stories had come out during the general election rather than before the primaries. But that's the point -- it didn't get that far. Both men's chances with the voters don't look so good now. Both were challenging sitting Republicans, whose chances have now improved.
This could be very good news for the Establishment Republican wing of the party. Rather than have a candidate implode in the general election (where the only two alternatives are voting for a Democrat or staying home), when candidates self-destruct before the primary then they never become the nominee in the first place. This increases the chances a competent Republican candidate can go on to win in November.
The Tea Party phenomenon has always consisted of two parts. There are the grassroots -- angry Republican voters who fervently believe in their cause -- and then there is the big money behind all this stirring of the Republican pot. Living as we do in the post-Citizens United world, the Tea Party's influence is more powerful than the sum of its grassroots. Candidates who would normally be considered too far out on the fringe are now a lot better funded and therefore survive longer than before. The 2012 presidential primaries showed this, with candidates like Newt Gingrich locking up one ultra-wealthy donor and having the money to keep running a lot longer than he probably should have.
However, now that the Establishment Republican wing has seen how nominating Tea Party candidates can mean throwing away at a chance of control of the Senate, and now that they've seen what Tea Party candidates do when they actually get to Washington (as John Boehner has painfully learned in the House), they're beginning to fight back. There are well-funded groups who are now devoted to blocking Tea Partiers from ever becoming nominees, such as the one Karl Rove created. This balances the field a bit.
One has to wonder where the opposition research is coming from when you read stories like Milton Wolf's, in fact. More effort is going towards the vetting process for Tea Party challengers, it seems. Of course, I could be all wrong about that. It could just be people who never should have run for office in the first place revealing (in spectacular fashion, to the media) their true character. To put it another way, maybe people like Chris Mapp (or Todd Akin) just can't help themselves. Have the big money folks behind the Tea Party groups learned their lesson yet about how to properly vet candidates? You'd think, by now, this would have been an obvious problem for them to have fixed, but the whole Tea Party movement is about purity of thought over actual qualifications to be a public servant, so who knows? Then again, to be fair, even Tea Partiers who don't draw a lot of the big Tea Party PAC money can still put their names on the ballot and then say stupid things to newspapers, so perhaps I'm overstating the case.
Establishment Republicans badly want control of the Senate. They know that all it would take would be for one or two of these Tea Party candidates to win their primaries and then lose in the general election to deny them winning a Senate majority this time around. They've certainly seen it happen before. Which could mean, as the primaries get closer and closer in each state, more stories appearing in the news which have been dug up from Tea Party candidates' pasts. It may be impossible to tell whether these are spontaneous eruptions of actual journalism, or rather machinations smeared with someone like Karl Rove's fingerprints. Is the media doing a better job digging things out? Will the Tea Party triumph in key states' primaries anyway? Or will the Establishment Republican empire strike back, behind the scenes?
Whatever the answers to those questions, it's going to be an interesting primary season to watch, on the Republican side. In the House, the Tea Party caucus is hard to pin down exactly, but roughly has about 50-70 members. Whether that increases or not after November will show whether Republican voters still support the Tea Party movement in a general sort of way -- mostly by showing how many Republican House members are still loudly self-identifying with the Tea Party. But the Senate is the real test. If all sitting Republican senators survive their primaries, then it'll be one sort of test. But if two or three Tea Partiers win the nomination, it'll be an entirely different test for the Republican Party as a whole. So far, it seems a few Tea Partiers are showing themselves not ready for prime time a lot earlier in the process than in 2012. It's too early to really draw any conclusions, but it'll be fascinating to see it play out over the next few months.
-- Chris Weigant
Cross-posted at The Huffington Post
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant