Scoring the Tea Party at the polls

Almost from the outset, the Tea Party movement committed to an electoral strategy to get what its adherents wanted–or at least some of what they wanted.  By 2010, the movement had largely moved from the town halls and streets to the polls, raising and spending tons of money to take out insufficiently conservative Republicans, and nominate stalwarts (who would sometimes lose winnable races) for visible offices.

But keeping score is tough.  First: Democrats don’t lose in races for the Congressional seat in my district because they’re too liberal or too conservative or silly or intellectual or lazy.  They lose because the district is overwhelmingly Republican.   Most Congressional districts nationwide are just like mine, skewed to one party or the other.  More liberal candidates usually win in safer Democratic districts, and more conservative candidates win in safer Republican districts.

Second, the Tea Party is hardly a unified bloc.  Conservative groups endorsed competing candidates in many races.  In Georgia’s Republican Senate primary, two very conservative candidates reached the run-off ahead of two even more conservative candidates.  All had received support from conservative causes and activists, but only the losers were identified as Tea Partiers.

Third, politicians can change their views, rhetoric, or approaches.  Mostly, Republican incumbents who “fended off” Tea Party challengers adapted and moved right to make it easier to do so.  Tea Partiers may not have gotten their preferred candidate in South Carolina, let’s say, but incumbent Senator Lindsey Graham was certainly more responsive, and less inclined to criticize them.

Fourth, incumbents almost always win renomination.  Just as Tea Partiers couldn’t take out incumbents, so-called Establishment Republicans couldn’t take out Tea Partiers.  (The defeats of Representatives Kerry Bentivolio [Michigan] and Eric Cantor [Virginia], for example, are far better explained by candidate idiosyncrasies and local conditions than any national political wave; they were defeated by candidates espousing pretty much the same policies.)  Michigan’s Justin Amash, a committed Tea Partier ostensibly targeted by the House Republican leadership and the Chamber of Commerce, won renomination easily.

So, be wary of people who have a stake in claiming the Establishment triumphed in saving the Republicans from the Tea Party, or Tea Partiers who enthusiastically trumpet their victories and general resilience.  Not all that much changed either way.

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About David S. Meyer

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