Post-mortems on the 2012 election are everywhere on the right right now, in all kinds of different forms:
Analysts wonder why the internal polls that left conservatives confident of the outcome up until Tuesday night and Karl Rove’s televised meltdown about Ohio were so wrong, when every public poll aggregator (left, right, and non-aligned) predicted a secure win for President Obama. No credible answers yet, but it’s a victory for the stat geeks.
Republican strategists wonder about how much of the blame they can put on the Romney campaign and Governor Mitt Romney’s own deficiencies.
Republican funders are wondering how all their hundreds of millions of dollars of contributions failed to produce any of the outcomes they were promised by consultants, Superpacs, and–of course–Karl Rove.
And, along with many others, I’ve been thinking about what this all means about the Tea Party and its influence, lack of influence, and/or perverse effects.
Remember, the Tea Party was heavily invested in the electoral process. Almost immediately after its emergence in 2009, the Tea Party renamed and infused existing national groups, and created its own new national groups. Tea Party organizers allowed their grassroots groups to atrophy and focused on the elections, claiming massive success in the 2010 Congressional contests. What’s more, Republicans gained control of more state legislative bodies in 2010, which proved critical to drawing Congressional districts that Republicans could win even in less auspicious times.
In the Presidential campaign, Tea Party groups dogged the Republican presidential hopefuls, forcing them to articulate clear positions on issues that Tea Partiers cared about–and articulate them forcefully. Although the Tea Party groups didn’t always agree on preferred candidates, all of the Republican hopefuls (except for the short-lived Jon Huntsman campaign) courted them, and Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum enjoyed moments in the sun before Governor Romney–every Tea Partier’s last Republican choice–claimed the nomination. And Romney himself went after the Tea Party vote, emphasizing anti-tax, anti-spending, anti-conciliation, anti-science (climate change) positions that were at odds with his relatively short political record. Governor Romney picked Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate in a clear attempt to solidify his support among the more conservative wing of the Republican Party (read: Tea Party).
And Tea Party groups held the Republican Party to a strict anti-cooperation line in government, encouraging gridlock; they also supported challengers in Republican primaries. Sometimes, the insurgent candidate lost–after pulling the incumbent to the right (see Orrin Hatch in Utah); sometimes, the incumbent retired rather than face a primary and return to a deadlocked Senate (see Olympia Snowe in Maine).
Most visibly, Tea Party supported insurgents defeated candidates favored by the Republican establishment in primaries in Texas (Ted Cruz beat David Dewhurst), Indiana (Richard Mourdock beat Dick Lugar), and Missouri (Todd Akin beat John Brunner and another Tea Partier, Sarah Steelman).
Ted Cruz is now a US senator, but so are Democrats Joe Donelly (Indiana) and Claire McCaskill (Missouri) and independent Angus King (Maine). Those are at least three senate seats Republicans had good reason to expect to win, but Democrats increased their margin in the Senate, taking advantage of opportunities the Tea Party helped supply.
After taking severe conservative positions in the primaries, Governor Romney tried to tack hard to the center during September, and made some gains, but every odd position he’d taken in the past was easily available on youtube. Democrats were happy to provide the links. In the last days of the campaign, it was President Obama who spoke about the Tea Party, which had become unwanted but unavoidable baggage for Mitt Romney.
The Tea Party’s success in the primaries forced Republican aspirants to toe some kind of harsh conservative line, one that was only trouble in the general election. Republicans have yet to find a way to harness Tea Party energies and resources without imbibing the Tea–essentially, how to sell out their stalwarts.
At the moment, both Tea Partiers and the Republican regulars are frustrated–and angry.