At the climax of the 1977 film Star Wars, hero Luke Skywalker destroys the evil Empire's dreaded Death Star. The Rebellion's celebration, however, is short-lived. The movie series' next installment, The Empire Strikes Back, depicts the Empire's use of its still vastly superior weaponry and manpower to reassert its authority.
In the 2010-midterm elections, the tea party movement has played the role of the Rebellion. But the Empire is not played by the Democrats. It's true that the Democrat-controlled federal government was resoundingly defeated in the November 2nd general election, but that loss, unlike the destruction of the Death Star, was not a surprise. The real blindside was the tea party's dismantling of the Republican Establishment throughout the primary season.
It started with the little-known Marco Rubio knocking off the NRSC-backed, popular governor Charlie Crist. Two weeks after Crist bolted the party, Utah Senator Bob Bennett became the first incumbent to fall to a more conservative candidate. Later in the summer Alaska's Joe Miller defeated liberal incumbent Lisa Murkowski. Tea party favorites won in Colorado, Wisconsin, Nevada and West Virginia. The final shock to the Establishment was Christine O'Donnell's win over sitting Delaware Congressman Mike Castle.
The O'Donnell race was the last straw. It was one thing for the tea party to obstruct the Democrats and resurrect the Republican Party, but another matter entirely for the tea party candidates to actually defeat Establishment favorites. The night of the Delaware Primary, Karl Rove trashed O'Donnell and the voters who elected her.
O'Donnell's case is a special one because the Castle loss was the most crushing to the Establishment. Castle was set to walk into the office -- it didn't matter that he favored Cap and Trade and resisted calls to repeal ObamaCare, he had an "R" next to his name. A Castle win was part of the Establishment's master plan.
Thus the fiercest backlash was saved for the Delaware race. It leaked that the NRSC would not support O'Donnell. NRSC leader John Cornyn quickly denied the report, a promised $42,000 in campaign aid. As the campaign progressed, the American Spectator's Jeffery Lord reported that the NRSC and Karl Rove's American Crossroads, though awash in cash, refused to spend money on O'Donnell's Senate bid. As the election drew to a close, Rove sought to make it clear just what conservatives ought to learn from the Delaware race. He told Fox's Megyn Kelly, "It gave me no pleasure to say that she was unlikely to win. But this again provides a lesson. This is a candidate who was right on the issues, but who had mishandled a series of questions brought up by the press." Rove wanted conservatives to relearn what the Establishment has been trumpeting since Barry Goldwater's 1964 failed presidential run. The lesson is that all candidates must meet Establishment approval or they are sure to lose. While election-winners from Reagan to Rubio have proven the theory false, if O'Donnell can become a new generation's Goldwater, then the Establishment can use her race to regain the control lost during the 2010 primaries.
Beyond firing warning shots about conservatives’ choice of candidates, the Establishment has repeatedly sought to undermine Alaska’s Joe Miller and help incumbent Senator (and confidante of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell) Lisa Murkowski. After Murkowski began a write-in campaign against the Republican nominee, the Senate Republicans refused to strip her of her Senate leadership positions, lending credence to her campaign. In the final days before the vote, the NRSC’s ads exclusively attacked the hopelessly-behind Democrat Scott McAdams, thus pushing McAdams voters to support the next-most liberal candidate, Murkowski.
Not content to target only the candidates on the ballot, the Establishment is attacking those on the inside who reject the insider mentality. Former Governor Sarah Palin and South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint (each instrumental in redefining and organizing the conservative majority within the once-lifeless Republican Party) confronted the Establishment throughout the 2010 primary season. DeMint, against the advice of his Senate colleagues, was the first U.S. Senator to back the remarkable Marco Rubio. Palin was the most active political figure in the Republican primaries, shining bright lights on conservative candidates from all over the country (most of whom won their races). DeMint and Palin were wildly successful, but both are under fierce attack because their actions opposed the Establishment's conventional thinking. Fox News reports that a bevy of unnamed senior Senate aides lashed out at DeMint for his primary endorsements. One aide described DeMint as "the undertaker, not the kingmaker." Quintessential Establishment Republicans Lindsey Graham and Trent Lott proclaimed that DeMint and Palin cost the GOP dearly in the Senate.
These Establishment criticisms ignore the fundamental reality that without the movement of which DeMint and Palin were a part, the Republicans had no identity. Without the tea party and its favorite candidates the GOP is a group of Charlie Crists, rudderless vote-chasers who, as Rubio correctly stated, are unable to provide a clear alternative to the Obama agenda.
With a 60-seat drubbing in the House and a six-seat pick-up in the Senate (seven if you factor in that Crist became a Democrat), it's a wonder that the Establishment, whose stated purpose is to put as many "R's" in office as possible, finds anything to complain about. That question has vexed conservatives for a generation. Why fight conservative candidates when the Ronald Reagan model is more successful than the John McCain/Bob Dole/George H. W. Bush model? The answer is control. The Establishment attitude is another form of central planning, in this case political planning instead of economic. The great economist Frederick von Hayek was once asked why so many academics rejected the free market in favor of central direction. Hayek responded: "I think it's...an intellectual attraction of a system you can deliberately control, which is fascinating to the intellectual." For Rove, Graham and others it's not just winning, but winning with their plan. The organized chaos of the tea party is to the Establishment what the unplanned free market is to the leftist professor. Both represent a lack of "fascinating" control.
And so the Establishment strikes back. Entrenched blue-blood Republicans hope to reap the electoral benefits of the tea party movement while simultaneously seeking to discredit it. In the aftermath of the 2010 midterms, it has become clear that the fight for America's future will pass directly through the heart of the Republican Establishment.