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The Tea Party and the future of the Republicans

July 11, 2014

Originally published in Aspenia Online of the Aspen Institute Italia

Ever since the Tea Party movement came out of nowhere to become a dominant force in the Republican Party after the 2010 Congressional elections, much has been said and written about the intra-party drama between the forces of the Establishment of the Grand Old Party (GOP) and the insurgents of the Tea Party. For a time, it even looked as if the latter had gained the upper hand. Or at least that they had enough votes in Congress to block whatever piece of legislation they did not like and enough support at the polls to clinch a series of major upsets against the more moderate representatives of the party, getting a number of young hardliners elected in the process, the likes of Senators Marco Rubio (Florida), Rand Paul (Kentucky), Mike Lee (Utah), Ted Cruz (Texas) and Tim Scott (South Carolina). So far in this 2014 midterm election cycle, however, the ballot box has yielded more mixed results for the Tea Party, with observers struggling to understand whether this movement is now on the retreat or whether its less than stellar performance is simply a sign that the Tea Party has in fact taken over the establishment, or at least that the lines between the two have blurred significantly.

“Sometimes we want to make sweeping statements about election outcomes to match some kind of broad narrative theme,” says Geoffrey Skelley, Associate Editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a highly regarded electoral predictions and analysis website put out by the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “The Tea Party is still alive and well; while it doesn’t win every race, individuals who consider themselves Tea Partiers are now established as a significant faction of the Republican Party.”

There have been a few key races so far in this year’s GOP primaries that had people either swiftly declaring the demise of the Tea Party or its unquestionable triumph. The wins by old Republican hands such as Senators John Cornyn of Texas, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, though none with more than 60% of the vote against relatively weak opponents, were taken as an indication that the Tea Party had finally run out of gas.

That is, of course, only until House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a representative from Virginia, fell an unsuspecting victim to a largely unknown conservative challenger, Randolph-Macon College Economics Professor David Brat. That Cantor could lose wasn’t on anyone’s radar in Washington, so much so that until the eve of the vote pundits were betting on how large Cantor’s advantage would be. His defeat was not only unexpected but also unprecedented, the first time in history that a House Majority Leader has gone down in a primary. And it caused a stir within the GOP, whose leaders started fearing yet again that they had lost their grip on the party. The timing of Cantor’s loss didn’t make it easier on the Republican establishment, coming as it did only a week after long-time Senator Thad Cochran from Mississippi, in Washington since 1978, had been forced to a run-off by Tea Party-backed former talk radio host Chris McDaniel (just recently, the GOP leadership breathed a sigh of relief when Cochran won the run-off).

In both Cantor’s and Cochran’s cases, however, more factors were at play than just the Tea Party vs. Establishment fight. “Cantor’s defeat was supposed to be an indubitable marker that the establishment is in a world of trouble,” says Skelley. “In reality, it happened for a variety of reasons, perhaps more importantly because Cantor lost touch with the base GOP voters in his district.” Brat’s highly efficient campaign, which deployed its limited resources far more effectively than Cantor’s much wealthier operation, also deserves credit. As for Cochran, his agonizing, drawn-out face-off with McDaniel is both proof that the establishment can overcome even the most difficult challenges by the Tea Party when it puts its mind to it, and that the Tea Party is here to stay.

All in all, if this year’s primary season is a mixed bag, Skelley believes the establishment is for once coming out ahead, though “it is a bit bloodied.” To reach this conclusion, he takes a look at the numbers. “A sprinkling of House and Senate incumbents typically lose renomination every cycle: since the end of World War II, 2% of House incumbents who sought another term were not renominated by their party, and 5% of Senate incumbents,” he says. “So far this year, 273 of 275 House incumbents (99%) and 18 of 18 Senate incumbents (100%) have won renomination. So incumbents – many of whom are establishment types – are actually doing well, even better than average at the moment.” The fact that most of the big headline races have already gone past, nearly all in favor of the establishment, and that Cochran was viewed as the most vulnerable Senator, is also good news for the party’s more traditional leadership. Nevertheless, there are at least two more primary elections to watch going forward: on August 5th in Kansas and on August 7th in Tennessee, where Senators Pat Roberts and Lamar Alexander, respectively, face Tea Party-supported candidates that have been emboldened by Cantor’s defeat at the hands of their comrade-in-arms Brat.

Additionally, Cantor’s departure from Congress next January, and therefore his immediate resignation from the position of Majority Leader, has already generated a new interesting leadership make-up. GOP-insider and pragmatic representative from California Kevin McCarthy has moved up from Majority Whip to succeed Cantor as Leader, therefore leaving the top two spots in the House (alongside the speakership, held by John Boehner from Ohio) in the hands of establishment-types. However, taking McCarthy’s role as Whip is Steve Scalise, a right-wing Congressman from Louisiana.

This is the first time that a Tea Partier ascends to a leadership post, an achievement that helps highlight the great strides this movement has made in penetrating the highest echelons of the Republican Party. Not only by booting out their more moderate colleagues, but by forcing those wanting to survive to take on policy positions beloved by the ultra-conservatives. “Most Republican incumbents understand that the Tea Party makes up a sizable part of the GOP base. In fact, the Tea Party is probably its most active part, in that polls have shown Tea Party supporters to be more likely to vote, to give money to campaigns, and to volunteer on behalf of candidates than the average Republican,” says Skelley. “So by trying to meet them half-way or more, GOP incumbents naturally move to the right.”

The question that many pundits are now asking is whether in his new role as Whip, Scalise will help bridge the gap between the establishment and the Tea Party or rather strain relationships between these two factions even further. It is possible, however, that this revamped leadership line-up is the most outward sign of a fait-accompli, of a Republican Party that has already settled on a new-found, far more conservative political balance.

If that’s the case, the better question to ask is, perhaps, whether the GOP can afford to veer to the right this much or whether it will suffer from it at the polls. According to Skelley, it is too early to say. “In a national general election context, such maneuvering could be problematic; however, many of the key races this cycle, particularly in the Senate, will take place in territory that is more Republican than the nation as a whole, meaning that a move to the right isn’t necessarily going to hurt the chances of GOP candidates,” he says. “As for future troubles, 2016 may shed a great deal of light on just how damaging or not a shift to the right is for the GOP; until then, it’s tough to say.”

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