WASHINGTON – Last week, incumbent Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) put down the final Tea Party threat to the Republican establishment in a convincing fashion. He defeated U.S. Senate hopeful Tennessee State Rep. Joe Carr by a 61,000-vote margin. Their primary race featured five other candidates, however Tea Partiers had their money on Carr.
Carr’s loss gave establishment Republicans a sweep in contests where the Tea Party was hoping to knock out sitting senators. Earlier that week in Kansas, Tea Party hopeful Milton Wolf lost to incumbent Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.). Wolf and Carr’s losses added to a string of defeats for the Tea Party that included Texas, Kentucky, South Carolina and Mississippi.
Aside from the improbable victory of Dave Brat over incumbent House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, it’s safe to say the Tea Party has struggled in this midterm election cycle. To understand the significance of it, it is important to take a look at the aspects of this midterm season.
Primary elections are base elections, especially during a midterm election cycle. That means that the hardest of the hard core participate. In other words, traditionally the most motivated turnout to vote. In recent years, those votes moved to participate tend to be the more “ideologically pure,” which begs the question: If the Tea Party can’t win in a lower-than-usual turnout contest, especially in the throes of a struggling Obama presidency, when will the time be right for it to win?
One possible reason for the Tea Party’s struggles is that one political party often dominates local and state politics. In Alabama, that has been the GOP.
In one-party states, it is generally the primary contests where officeholders are selected. General elections are little more than a formality. Therefore, Democrats or Republicans will crossover and participate in the other party’s primary and dilute the process. In this system, being a Tea Party candidate becomes a difficult proposition.
Despite a relatively long losing streak for the Tea Party, some argue this is just the early stage of accomplishing the ultimate goal.
Yes, effecting change in a political system takes time, but going 0-for-6 this primary season in Senate races suggests the momentum is no longer with the Tea Party.
One would think that when Congress is polling at record lows and “throw the bums out” is the prevailing sentiment, movements like the Tea Party or even the long-forgotten Occupy Wall Street effort would have a chance to thrive. But the ideological extremes aren’t selling and people are clearly opting for moderation in their politics.
We often hear how divisive the American political environment is in its current state. But that seems to be more of a reflection of the more vocal players. There are only a handful of Ted Cruzes and Elizabeth Warrens elected to Capitol Hill. And that’s certainly a divide too far to bridge. There are five bland milquetoast-types in the U.S. Senate for every one Cruz or Warren, and that seems to indicate where America is for the most part.
The Tea Party was just a reaction to a moment in time when Democrats had total control and were flirting with the ideas of radically changing health care, banking and other aspects of every day American life.
That time has passed, for now.
Sure, it’s still a good time to be a Republican if you’re running in 2014. But by the time the November election is here, Tea Party versus establishment has already been settled and the casual political observer that votes in even just the midterm elections doesn’t probe too deeply into for whom or what they’re voting on.
“This guy has an ‘R’ next to his name? Well, Obama’s a Democrat and I’m not happy with things, so therefore I’m voting all ‘Rs.’ Now give me my ‘I Voted Sticker’ because I want to make it home in time for ‘NCIS.’”
It’s really that simple.
My father for example – he listens to Rush Limbaugh, watches Fox News. He’s a very conservative guy. But he doesn’t get involved in the Republican primary. It’s hard enough to get him interested in voting every two or four years. That’s likely true for a lot of people.
Turnout by the voting-eligible population in the 2010 midterm according to the U.S. Elections Project was around 41 percent nationally and slightly higher in Alabama at 43 percent. In 2012 for the presidential election, turnout was at 58.2 percent nationally and about the same for Alabama.
Voting in midterm elections, even if it is for Mitch McConnell, Thad Cochran or Lamar Alexander, for a lot of self-described conservatives that identify with the Tea Party, is to them living up to their political stripes.
Unfortunately for the Tea Party, that’s not furthering its cause. And while it may live on in some circles of our politics, the brand that struck fear in the hearts of a lot of progressives is more bark than bite and looks to be headed toward being a footnote in American political history.
For now, the Tea Party seems to be a thing of 2010 that has become in some way a liability. But who knows, fads make a comeback. If vinyl records, Pabst Blue Ribbon and Betty White can make a comeback, why not the Tea Party? Elect another president as polarizing as Barack Obama and give his or her party control of both bodies of Congress and it could happen.