Over the course of the next two months, the Tea Party movement may become to be seen (to mix a few metaphors) as more of a paper tiger than the tail that wags the Republican dog. To put it a little more concretely, the Tea Party may be losing some of its outsized influence over the Republican Party. It is still too early to state with any degree of certainty (since the Tea Partiers have shown themselves to be impressively resilient on previous occasions), but if Tea Party power is indeed on the wane it could signal a turning point in modern American politics.
Ever since the 2012 election (some would even say before the elections), Republicans have been at each other's throats. There has been an ongoing open civil war between the Tea Party and the Establishment Republican wing of the party. Tea Party tactics have been shown to be not only non-productive but at times downright harmful to the Republican Party as a whole (such as the government shutdown last year). The Tea Partiers, in their neverending quest for political purity, forced the Establishment Republicans currently in office to follow their lead. The Establishment Republicans went along out of fear -- the fear of "being primaried" by a more-pure Tea Party candidate. Was this fear justified, or was it a paper tiger without claws? The answer is different in different states and districts, but as the 2014 primary season truly gets underway it seems the Tea Party doesn't have a whole lot to show for their threats, at least not so far.
This overstates the case a bit, because it is always easier to mount a challenger's campaign for a House seat than it is over in the Senate. It's cheaper to run such campaigns, they usually remain almost entirely local (the national press doesn't do well following 435 simultaneous horseraces), and there are plenty of districts where a purist Tea Party candidate is indeed the "cup of tea" the voters are looking for. Meaning that analysis of how many House Tea Party candidates win their primaries (and how many of them won against sitting Republicans) is going to have to wait until the votes are counted. When the next Congress is sworn in next January, it will be very interesting to see the relative size of the "Tea Party caucus" in the House (even now it's hard to pin down, somewhere between about 50 to 70 seats). But the House as a whole is already Republican, a fact which few predict will change this election cycle.
The Senate, on the other hand, is the big prize this time around. Republicans are convinced they've got an excellent shot at picking up the six seats they need to wrest control of the chamber away from Harry Reid. Many election analysts agree with this viewpoint. Democrats are defending seats in some awfully red states, and if Republicans have a good November then they could indeed grab control of the Senate.
They have a good chance to grab control, of course, only if they nominate non-extreme candidates instead of loose cannons. In the past two election cycles, Republican voters in at least six states went with a Tea Party candidate who self-imploded at some point during the campaign. This represents a loss of exactly the same margin they needed to gain control of the Senate, in fact. Republican strategists are aware of this, of course. The Establishment Republicans know they blew what should have been winnable races in places like Delaware and Missouri, if the Republican primary voters there hadn't gone for Tea Partiers Christine O'Donnell and Todd Akin. The Establishment Republicans set out to not repeat this mistake in 2014, and if the polls can be believed it looks like they're doing a pretty good job so far in fending off extremist candidates who will go on to lose the general election. Tea Party challengers in Kansas, Kentucky, and South Carolina have for the most part fizzled, although incumbent Senator Thad Cochran in Mississippi may still be in trouble.
Of course, that's just the polls -- it is not who actually shows up on primary election day. Within the space of about two months, though, we should be able to see whether the polling is right. So far, only 2 states (Texas and Illinois) have held their primaries. In May, 11 states will go to the polls. Another 8 will vote on June 3, and then 10 more in the remainder of June. That adds up to 29 more primary elections by the end of June, which should be more than enough data to tell how big the threat of "being primaried by a Tea Partier" really is in the Republican Party these days. If all (or even most) of the Establishment Republicans win their primary races, it will indicate that the Republican primary voters themselves have decided that electability in a general election is more important to them than purity of thought in a primary election, at least for Senate races (which are much more important than most House races).
Even if the Tea Party candidates lose across the board, the Tea Party itself shouldn't be seen as defunct in any way, though. The Tea Party has always been a strange movement, almost from the very start, because it can really be thought of as two movements with the same name. There is the grassroots "I'm angry!" movement among Republican (and Libertarian) base voters, and then there is the big-bucks exploitation of the original movement. The Washington Post has an excellent article up on how these exploiters have fleeced some people into donating lots of money which does not actually pay for political activity at all, except as a sort of window-dressing ginned up to keep the bucks flowing in. Even if these charlatans are eventually shunned by the donors, however, the core grassroots movement will still likely exist in some form or another. The Tea Party movement's main objectives will remain a strong lever within the Republican Party, to put this another way, likely for decades to come. But the strength of this lever to move the rest of the party may have already hit its high point.
The Tea Party grassroots made their initial splash in the media by stealing a page from the liberals and mounting large and colorful political street theater (all the rallies with guys in Revolutionary War garb). But they soon realized that to be effective, the rallies weren't as important as gaining actual political power by electing their own into Congress. This is the trend that may be coming to an end (at least as far as the Senate is concerned). While the Tea Partiers had a lot of success in 2010 (especially in the House), they didn't do quite as well in 2012 during a presidential election. If the 2014 midterm shows even more of a wane in their influence, then a lot more sitting Republican officeholders may become bolder in staking out positions that don't meet with 100 percent Tea Party approval.
We may already be seeing this begin. John Boehner was not only snarky but downright insulting to his fellow Republicans in the House late last week, as he sneered at them for whining about having to tackle immigration reform. Rumors have been swirling since late last year that Boehner is going to bring some sort of immigration reform to the floor before the midterm elections happen -- which would enrage a lot of House Republicans.
I've written about this before, when the speculation was whether Boehner would move on immigration after most states had passed the filing deadline for the primary election (which has now happened -- only 16 states haven't hit this deadline yet). If the next few weeks of primary elections go by without major Tea Party upset wins, it may in fact strengthen Boehner's hand. If the fear of Tea Party retaliation in the primaries fades, then Boehner will have a much freer hand to move legislation onto the House floor that could pass with moderate Republican and Democratic votes. If this does come to pass -- especially if any sort of comprehensive immigration reform is included -- then it would represent a clear victory for the Establishment Republicans. It would also represent a real turning point in how much influence the Tea Party will have in the future, in both the House and in the larger Republican Party.
-- Chris Weigant
Cross-posted at The Huffington Post
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant