On Tuesday, May 6, North Carolina conducted its primary contests to determine party nominees for the upcoming midterm elections. For those so-called Tea Party candidates competing for the GOP nomination in the state’s Senate race and a couple of House races, it was a losing night.
Which raises the question: Is this the sign of things to come in the Republican Party? Perhaps the establishment finally has exerted its influence to root out the candidates that might be too flawed for a general election contest.
The North Carolina outcomes were much like last fall’s primary runoff between Dean Young and Bradley Byrne. The candidate who wasn’t trying to run as the most ideologically pure got last-minute backing from the pro-big business likes of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other more mainstream Republican storefronts like Karl Rove’s American Crossroads.
Indeed, the Chamber and Crossroads together spent more than $2 million on the North Carolina senate Republican primary race. Their motives are clear: to keep the Todd Akins, Christine O’Donnells, Sharon Angles and Richard Mourdocks off of the general election ballot in the upcoming midterms.
So where does this leave the Tea Party?
It’s not 2009 anymore. There is no longer uncertainty of a Barack Obama presidency with a Nancy Pelosi-controlled House of Representatives and a filibuster-proof Democratic Senate in tow. The push for a massive government bailout for troubled home borrowers, which inspired Rick Santelli’s famous rant on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (an apparent impetus for the Tea Party movement), is no longer a possibility.
There is not the same level of organized rallies or bus trips to D.C. — much like the ones Nikki Carey-Nicholson and Josh Woods led in Mobile and others all over the country four and five years ago.
The thrill is gone.
Polling backs this up. Last week, a Gallup poll found support down for the Tea Party from 32 percent among all adults nationally in November 2010 to 22 percent in April 2014. It’s much worse from within the Republican Party, where support for the Tea Party was at 61 percent in November 2010 and is down to 41 percent for April 2014.
There are still groups, however, raising funds and professing to support the candidates with the most Tea Party-like qualities.
There are the Tea Party Patriots, the Tea Party Express (which made a stop in Mobile last month), FreedomWorks, the Madison Project, Americans for Prosperity, the Senate Conservatives Fund, Club for Growth, Heritage Action and so on and so forth. So much for putting on a unified front.
But are we in the death throes of the Tea Party?
Heading into the final midterm of Obama’s presidency, there are a handful of key races in Nebraska, Kentucky and Georgia that are going to determine the viability of the Tea Party brand beyond this November.
Closer to home, one to keep an eye on is the June 3 match-up between longtime incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi and the so-called Tea Party insurgent candidacy of state Sen. Chris McDaniel.
If there were an in the Merriam-Webster for “Republican establishment,” Cochran’s picture would be posted next to the definition. Cochran has been a fixture in the U.S. Senate since 1979. He has the backing of the major Republican power players in the state, including former Republican National Committee chairman and ex-Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour along with former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, now of the Patton Boggs, one of the top lobbying firms in Washington, D.C.
McDaniel has the backing of the usual suspects from within the Tea Party movement and although he still trails, he’s within striking distance of Cochran. That could change in an instant if the Chamber and Rove’s group intervene in the days before, much like things changed when the Chamber decided to throw in the Young-Byrne race.
If McDaniel goes down, that will pretty much end the Tea Party playbook to electoral success in the South.
From the beginning the Tea Party never was a particularly successful entity, except for Mo Brooks in north Alabama. Brooks defeated an incumbent Democrat-turned-Republican Rep. Parker Griffith, who had the backing of then-House Minority Leader John Boehner, who is certainly a GOP establishment figure.
Other “hopefuls” that tried to ride the Tea Party wave in 2010 like Dale Peterson, Rick Barber and Tim James are now just footnotes of a Wikipedia page. Then, the Tea Party movement provided momentum for Republican candidates in the general election. But it was of a factor for insurgent candidates in the primaries.
Populist movements like the Tea Party only work when the electorate is engaged. Right now, the electorate isn’t engaged, at least not in the way it was engaged during the 2010 election cycle.
One way the Tea Party could make a comeback would be if people start losing their employer-provided health care coverage en mass in the next two-and-a-half years. That surely would engage the electorate.
Something so large and disruptive likely won’t happen in the short-term, but it could before the 2016 primaries, which will be another minefield establishment forces will be forced to navigate.