Is the Tea Party Selling Out?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
July 13 2012 6:29 PM

Hacks Like Us

The Tea Party and other grassroots conservatives are starting to back real-life politicians over the “citizen politicians” they claim to embrace.

Eric Hovde of Wisconsin
Eric Hovde of Wisconsin

Photograph by Douglas Graham/Roll Call.

As Mitt Romney’s campaign enters the  444th round of debates about the candidate’s portfolio, as he explains when and how and with what Bain Capital statione ry he invested in what outsourcer, it’s a good time to ask: What ever happened to the businessman-turned-candidate?

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

I’m referring to a micro-trend from 2010, one that ended up helping Romney by osmosis. During the midterms, the GOP’s hunt for pitchfork-wieldin’, paycheck-signin’ citizen politicians was a source of endless pride and helpful stories. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the happy warrior who led their recruiting in the House, would imitate the soft drawl of Stephen Fischer—“a gospel-singin’ farmer from Frog Jump, Tennessee”—and describe how he convinced regular-guy physician Scott DesJarlais to shave his goatee and run for Congress. Four members of the GOP’s freshman class in the House were car salesman, who could talk themselves hoarse about the Big Brother-ism of “cash for clunkers.”

Conservative writers liked this story, too. George Will described Ron Johnson, a plastics manufacturer from Oshkosh, Wis., who jumped into politics after a couple of Tea Party speeches, as “what the Tea Party looks like,” a man who “has worn jeans and running shoes to his office,” who was so earthly that his wife had to pick out brown shoes for him. He wasn’t just an Ayn Rand reader. He could be an Atlas Shrugged character—Hank Rearden, or Francisco D’Anconia, or a less-talkative John Galt.

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This year, we are low on Hank Reardens. Look at the map of states Republicans need to conquer if they want to take the Senate. One of their chosen candidates, Pennsylvania’s Tom Smith, is a bona fide Tea Partier and coal magnate, but he’s down by 19 points. If you go by David Catanese’s reliable list of races, five top candidates—Virginia’s George Allen, Montana’s Denny Rehberg, North Dakota’s Rick Berg, New Mexico’s Heather Wilson, and Florida’s Connie Mack IV—have current or expired congressional ID pins.

And there’s more! Ohio’s Josh Mandel, 34, a Marine Corps Reserves vet (you can tell by the camo in all of his ads), has never worked in the private sector. The Tea Party hero of the cycle so far, Indiana’s giant-slayer Richard Mourdock, is the state’s treasurer. The next hero on deck, Texas’s Ted Cruz, was an attorney for the federal government and the state of Texas.

Behold, more evidence of one of the great 2012 trends—the gentling and education of the GOP primary voter. In Indiana, Tea Party activists realized that they needed to coalesce behind one candidate to beat Lugar, so they did. In Washington, the permanent conservative establishment realized how risky it was to let untested first-termers win primaries. There’s more vetting now; there are fewer amateurs surging ahead.

The next month will test the pros. On Aug. 7, Missouri Republicans will decide whether to let businessman John Brunner grab their Senate nomination, instead of a state treasurer or a member of Congress. One week later, Wisconsin Republicans will get a choice between former Gov. Tommy Thompson, former Rep. Mark Neumann, the president of the state Senate … and Eric Hovde, a high-fiving hedge fund manager worth at least $50 million. And on Aug. 28, Arizona Republicans get a chance to ditch Rep. Jeff Flake for Tim Cardon, another businessman who’s never run for anything.

Each of these races is competitive. Polling suggests that the novices will make it more competitive—better for the Democrats. And the choosiest conservative groups are backing the guys who’ve already served in politics and who’ve already been vetted. Sen. Jim DeMint, whose Senate Conservatives Fund got behind a number of 2010 losers, has resolutely backed Wisconsin’s Neumann. He and Rand Paul—an ophthalmologist before he got to the Senate—cut video for the state GOP convention to sell the guy who’d served from 1993 to 1999.

“Mark Neumann was one of the first conservatives I’d heard about,” said DeMint. “When he was in Congress in the 1990s, he was a legend!”

“Every Republican is not created equal,” said Paul. “Many Republicans are for a balanced budget, but few Republicans will have the courage to propose and vote for a balanced budget.”

That’s what you hear from all the groups that back Neumann—the Club for Growth, Citizens United. Why take a chance on a capitalist who hasn’t ever had to cast tough votes?

This is awfully tough on the capitalists. Robert Blaha spent $700,000 of his own money against Colorado Rep. Doug Lamborn. What was his beef? “We have 9.2 percent unemployment in this area,” Blaha told me, “and Lamborn hasn’t done anything to fix that. He hasn’t sponsored a single successful bill.” The Club for Growth, which had boosted Lamborn to Congress in the first place, helped rescue him. That the “permanent political class” came out didn’t surprise Blaha. The loss, coming after that great wave of amateurs—that sort of surprised him. “Had I run in 2010, would I have won? I think I might have.”

On Friday, the Club for Growth ran its first Wisconsin TV ad. It’s a concise double-barreled shot at Hovde and Thompson, pronouncing the rich guy “worse” than the former HHS because he once talked about raising taxes and he donated $500 to little-loved former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle. (Hovde has said he’d “like his money back” for that and his spokesman Sean Lansing theorized that the donation was “likely the result of a business relationship.”

But Friday’s other Wisconsin news was a new endorsement—of Hovde, by the PAC of Dick Armey’s group FreedomWorks. They made the call after e-mailing their membership in the state—around 22,000 conservatives—based on Friedrich von Hayek’s principle that “knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place” helps make the best decisions. The activists broke big for Hovde. “Neumann I thought would be more popular,” said  FreedomWorks’ Max Pappas. “But I think they’re tired of retreads. I’ve been hearing this from Wisconsin guys since the fall, you know—we want someone else like Ron Johnson.”

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