Why Tea Party candidates won't win any elections next year: because mainstream Republicans now spout the same ideas.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Aug. 24 2011 7:01 PM

The Party's Over

Why Tea Party candidates won't win any elections next year: because mainstream Republicans now spout the same ideas.

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Yet when Chaffetz passed on the race, those Tea Partiers Hatch had been courting were still shocked. "It was quite surprising," Kirkham says. "He'll still be vigorously challenged. We're looking for someone who's been more reliably conservative, but we had been working really hard to work with Hatch."

This was a victory that looked like a loss. The Tea Party, the Club for Growth—the whole movement has succeeded in driving Republicans further to the right. Nuking a few moderates in primaries was only part of that—a great story for the horse-race media, but not something that would keep up as the GOP was purified. Think about the Tea Party as repeating (and perfecting) the strategy liberals used in 2006 and after, when online activists and unions banded together to beat Joe Lieberman in his U.S. Senate primary in Connecticut.

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Lieberman ended up returning to the Senate. Liberals would oust only a couple more Democrats, like Maryland's Rep. Al Wynn, in the next election cycle. But the Lieberman challenge drew a neon line in front of the party's candidates: Oppose the Iraq War, oppose the surge, or you go nowhere. The party's presidential candidates obeyed. Its next presidential nominee won the primaries in a squeaker in part because he, alone among the frontrunners, had always opposed the Iraq War.

Republicans seem to have figured this out. It's increasingly likely that no incumbent Republican will lose a primary to a Tea Partier in 2012. The movement can consolidate its gains. Safe districts and the fear of primaries do more to keep Republicans straight than the occasional wins.

But some activists still like to think about bloodying up the party some more. Virginia activists, while bearish on Radtke, are bemused and annoyed that Allen has his own prefab Tea Party group to make it look like he's gotten right with them. It's possible that Lugar could go down—even if the primary is split, even if his main challenger, Richard Mourdock, keeps pulling in weak numbers. "That would all make it more difficult," says George Ethridge of the Corydon Tea Party, "but Mourdock can beat Lugar."

What about Utah, where a likely coup just turned into a frantic search for a self-funding candidate with great hair? Kirkham hasn't talked to Hatch recently, but he wants to keep putting the fear in him.

"He scored a touchdown, but he shouldn't be dancing in the end zone," he says. "The game is still on."