Tea Party Continues Winning

Yes, you heard that right.  The tea party is (still) winning, even during and after this year’s 2014 Republican primary season. 

The tea party is not a political party. It never has been. The tea party never set as its goal defeating every single incumbent Republican officeholder. The fact that the tea party has taken the scalps of about 50 House Democrats in the 2010 election and several giants in the Republican establishment during 2010 and 2012 is a bonus. That is far in excess of what the tea party movement ever expected to accomplish.

The tea party movement was born in the Spring of 2009, out of Rick Santelli’s famous rant on CNBC on February 18, 2009, calling on citizens to gather and throw tea into Lake Michigan near Chicago as a tea party protest. A few activists claim credit for hatching precursor efforts earlier than that, mainly supporters of Ron Paul.  But Rick Santelli’s nationwide television broadcast was the rocket’s blastoff.

The purpose of the tea party was to protest financial irresponsibility, excessive regulation strangling liberty and the economy, and business as usual in Washington (voting for bills no one has read, for example). The tea party was always about promoting issue positions for financial responsibility.  The tea party was not primarily about running candidates.

The tea party continues to dominate the Republican Party. Although there are many enemies of the commonsense goals of the tea party, they mostly have to scheme behind closed doors. The few exceptions get pounded with criticism.    

Yet in 2014, many candidates favored by the Republican establishment have survived primary challenges. Is this the test for whether the tea party is successful or is fading?  No.

First, as Christine O’Donnell just tweeted, the winners of these primary candidates are (more or less) conservative Republicans. A notable exception is Dr. Monica Wehby in Oregon, who is pro-choice, and perhaps Mitch McConnell, who was never going to be unseated anyway.

This election cycle, establishment-backed candidates not only pretended to be tea-party friendly conservatives, but by and large actually are. The establishment did not try to ram through liberals like Olympia Snowe or Arlen Specter. For example, analysts are trying to portray conservative Rep. Jack Kingston (ACU life-time rating 95.6%, designated as an “ACU Conservative”) as “establishment” in the Georgia primary for U.S. Senate. 

As a result, tea party conservatives were not motivated as strongly to oppose establishment candidates in 2014 as they were in 2010. The difference was not that great among the primary candidates.

Second, the tea party already knocked off some of the worst Republican incumbents in 2010 and 2012. That leads to the result that 2014’s incumbents did not draw as much fire from the tea party this time around.

Third, it is clear to everyone that the biggest obstacle to tea party objectives -- at the moment -- is Democrat control of the U.S. Senate. The Republican-led U.S House has in fact undertaken many strenuous efforts to advance tea-party objectives. Those efforts have crashed on the shores of Harry Reid’s U.S. Senate. Although there is great dissatisfaction with Republican leadership and its competence and devotion to conservative goals, there is a unity of purpose across the Republican coalition.

A consensus that Republicans must take control of the U.S. Senate is consistent with the tea party’s goals. But that is simply the biggest obstacle in our path at the moment.

Fourth, all Republicans seem to feel that 2014 is a "growing year” for the Republican majority in Congress. That is wholly consistent with the pruning that took place in 2010, and which will take place again in the future. You do not prune a tree constantly. You also let it grow.

But the tea party is still holding the pruning shears and won’t hesitate to use them in 2016 and beyond. Indeed, the tea party is gaining strength in expertise, training, organization, and infrastructure. Tea party activists are mastering skills on radio and the internet. The Northern Virginia Tea Party, for example, launched “Tea Party 2.0” almost two years ago.

Fifth, no one ever suggested that the tea party would get rid of bad Republicans all at once. That is an unrealistic expectation.  It took us decades to get into the mess we are in, and it won’t be fixed overnight.

Sixth, in most of the primaries in which an establishment-favored candidate won, there were many other candidates in a divided field. There was no one clear tea party candidate. Tea party organizations were divided supporting different candidates. Many candidates divided the vote. 

For example, businessman David Perdue in the Georgia primary Tuesday will face a July 22 runoff for the nomination. But Perdue only got 30% of the vote. There is little to make us fear David Perdue as a liberal, except just a lack of a record of actual votes. Perdue’s appeal as an outsider bringing “fresh blood” resonates with the tea party. Yet if supporters of other candidates unite behind conservative Jack Kingston, Perdue will lose the runoff.

So the tea party is here to stay. The fantasies of GOP insiders, who sold out the country to big business lobbyists as part of “K Street Project,” that they can return to the trough will fail. 

Republican insiders keep announcing -- again and again, over and over -- their new plans (the same old plan every time) to “this time” overcome the tea party insurgency. The same ideas that didn’t work before won’t work now. 

One of the biggest mistakes the establishment keeps making is imagining that spending lots of money on TV ads counts for much. Conservatives know that they are the ones who win elections pounding the pavement door to door. A second big mistake is thinking that the voters pay any attention to what the establishment has to say. Insiders keep saying that – this time – we need to “vet” candidates. But the establishment strongly attacked tea party candidates in 2010 and 2012 primaries.  The voters simply ignore what the insiders have to say.

Instead, the way that the establishment has beat the tea party challenge this year is to join them. Running candidates more in harmony with tea party demands, who echo tea party themes and claim to be conservative, is what the establishment has done successfully this year. But the tea party will be waiting to pounce if Republicans stray from the path of financial responsibility.