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.

 U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) takes an elevator July 30, 2011 at the Capitol in Washington, DC. Click to expand image.
Orrin Hatch

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.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

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.

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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.

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.

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."

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