Is the Tea Party at the polls?

A professor beat House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in Virginia’s 7th district’s Republican primary; pundits are competing to find the right metaphor (earthquake?).  The common capsule description is that Dave Bratt, a professor of Economics at Randolph-Macon College, represented the Tea Party, rising up–effectively this time–against the Republican establishment.  (Professor Bratt’s websites are likely getting more traffic today than they were designed to handle.)

Rep. Cantor, although boasting an extremely conservative record–to the right of Speaker Boehner–had been attacked from the right at least since 2010, and was particularly vulnerable on the issue of immigration (activists feared he might support some kind of reform).  Prof. Bratt rode that issue, garnering some support from local Tea Party groups and the endorsements of popular conservative radio personalities.  Although he raised and spent very little money, he defeated Rep. Cantor and looks to be on a glide path to the House of Representatives.  He has only to defeat Democratic candidate, Jack Trammell, a sociology professor from the same college–in a district that had become more conservative and more Republican over the years.  (Bratt’s advantage is less about academic disciplines than partisan loyalties.)

So, is this story of a successful Tea Party insurgency in the context of (mostly) lots of primary defeats as mainstream Republicans guarded their right flank by spending lots of money from local Chambers of Commerce?  That’s certainly one story, and it rides against a broader debate about the success of the Republican establishment in controlling the Tea Party.  The basic fault lines:

By paying attention and spending lots of money, “main street Republicans” have marginalized the Tea Party


The Republican regulars have moved so far to the right that the Tea Party wins even when it loses.

There’s plenty of evidence and argument on both sides (e.g.).

But it’s a mistake to draw big conclusions from very small elections.  Turnout in primary elections is almost always very low.  (That’s why, by the way, primaries are a good place for social movements to try to exercise influence.)  Turnout in Virginia’s 7th district this week was about 5 percent–even lower than two years priorProf. Bratt’s percentage win was impressive, but it was only about 7,000 votes.  And the turnout in primary elections skews toward the more engaged; for the Republican primary in the 7th district, this meant an electorate that was older, whiter, and more conservative than you could imagine (from Will Saletan at Slate).  Representative Cantor did a great job at raising and spending money, but apparently didn’t put much effort in turning out his voters.

And what kind of Tea Partier is Dave Bratt anyway?  For sure, he’s an economic conservative who opposes taxes, government spending, and regulations (check).  He’s also against new immigration of any kind and a committed religious conservative.  The Tea Party started, with support from large national organizations, on the first point, but at the grassroots, conservative activists carried flags for additional issues.  Now the appellation Tea Party is applied to any Republican who is particularly emphatic in his conservatism–of all kinds.  Immigration, social issues, and foreign policy offer all sorts of divisions for this movement–if there’s really a movement any more.

Oh, and here’s another note:  Eric Cantor is presently the only Jewish Republican in Congress.  This was apparently not an issue in the primary election, although Dave Bratt and his supporters emphasized the challenger’s very strong Christian commitments.  In one small election, this is another bit of story.

The point is that there are all kinds of story lines that you can pass through the thin point of a Republican primary in Richmond, Virginia: populist uprising; establishment neglect; restless Tea Party; overpriced and ill-conceived electoral strategies; mobilized nativism.  And so on.  What matters now is which story prevails.


About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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