The Party's Over
Why Tea Party candidates won't win any elections next year: because mainstream Republicans now spout the same ideas.
Jamie Radtke was supposed to be the Tea Party's next giant-killer. She'd put together the biggest movement convention ever, a two-day gathering in Richmond, Va., under the banner of her Virginia Tea Party Patriots. When George Allen took the stage, subliminally begging the grassroots to support his comeback bid for Senate, the irony was just too sweet: Radtke used to work for this guy, and now he was kowtowing to her.
And so, two days after Christmas 2010, Radtke announced her Senate campaign. It was national news for reporters looking for the next Christine O'Donnell, the next Joe Miller, the next Sharron Angle. When three freshmen senators launched the Tea Party Caucus in January 2011, she scored an invite to speak at the meeting. Rand Paul talked for five minutes. She talked for seven. In short order she started appearing, and talking, at all sorts of Tea Party events in Washington. She raised more than $250,000—not much, only one-tenth as much as Allen, but not fringe candidate money.
So, how's the giant-killing quest going? Terribly. Earlier this month, a Public Policy Polling survey gave Allen a 68 percent-to-6 percent lead over Radtke, with the rest of the vote split among more marginal candidates. Tea Party activists in the state say they've been focused on this year's state elections, and anyway, she's not unifying the movement.
On Wednesday, the Radtke campaign euthanized its old win-over-the-tastemakers strategy by attacking RedState blogger Erick Erickson and claiming that he hadn't done enough to promote her. Not so, said Erickson: He endorsed her, and then she proceeded to induce comas whenever she talked to activists, and then she screwed him over.
And that's one measure of how the next round of Tea Party challenges is going. Another: Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who actually tied Sen. Orrin Hatch in some polls of Utah Republicans, just announced he was taking a pass on the campaign. Another: Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, whom Erickson says is now the ripest Tea Party target for 2012, is waiting to see whether a conservative state senator will jump into his primary, split up the conservative vote, and help him win. Another? Sure, why not. Sen. Olympia Snowe may be beatable in Maine, but she's only got to beat a fractured field of nobodies.
Are we witnessing the end of the Tea Party's electoral rebellion? Did the GOP civil war reach Appomattox, and nobody noticed? Those questions assume that the Tea Party's goal was to purge Republicans in primaries. That was just one of the movement's goals, and we're finding out that, yes, it may have run its course.
In 2010, when they wanted to take out Republicans, the Tea Party had relatively easy pickings. Their three biggest victories were in Delaware, Alaska, and Utah. Delaware and Alaska are, respectively, the 45th and 47th most populous states. Only 57,582 Republicans voted in the Christine O'Donnell-Mike Castle primary; only 109,750 voted in the Joe Miller-Lisa Murkowski primary. Utah nominates all candidates at party conventions, which put Sen. Bob Bennett's fate at the hands of 3,500-odd Republicans. Compare that to the stakes in Indiana. In 2010, when Dan Coats lucked out and beat a split conservative field for the GOP's Senate nod, he won more than 217,225 out of 550,000 votes.
So: It's hard winning elections. It's even harder because the Republican "establishment," insofar as such a thing still exists, consists of fairly smart people who know what happened last time. When Bob Bennett's slayer, Mike Lee, arrived in the Senate, Hatch started copying his homework and showing up at every Lee presser. He kept up his outreach to Utah's Tea Party leaders, like classic car dealer David Kirkham. He used his powerful position as ranking member of the finance committee to add credibility to Tea Party arguments about the debt, like the idea that the administration was fibbing about the impact of passing the Aug. 2 deadline without raising the debt limit.
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at email@example.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.
Photograph of Orrin Hatch by Alex Wong/Getty Images.