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With all but a handful of states having completed their primaries to determine Senate and House races in November, it would be a good time to look at how Tea Party endorsed candidates are doing. There are still a few high profile primary elections yet to go- Massachusetts, Arizona, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Additionally, there is run off election in Georgia to determine three Republican nominees for the House and two involve Tea Party-backed candidates. Thus, the jury is still out on them.
Overall, Tea Party candidates have won 48 of 103 contests for a success percentage of 46.6%. They are 2 wins and 2 losses in Governorships. Five Tea Party backed Senate candidates have prevailed in 13 races (38.5% success rate) and 41 of 86 candidates have prevailed in House races (47.7% success rate).
Some articles in the popular press have postulated that some high profile Tea Party victories spell impending doom for the Democrats come November. They further postulate that these successes also put the Republican Party on notice about the clout of the Tea Party. In particular, two high profile victories in Senate races are pointed out. They are Richard Mourdock’s victory over incumbent Richard Lugar in Indiana and Ted Cruz’ victory over establishment favorite David Dewhurst in Texas to succeed Republican Kay Bailey Hutichison as indicative of that Tea Party power. However, not to denigrate the successes here, these high profile success stories are tempered by some high profile losses. For example, Keith Sowards’ loss to Heather Wilson in New Mexico goes unnoticed as does Orrin Hatch prevailing in Utah. Just this past Tuesday, the Tea Party-backed Hoogendyk lost to Fred Upton in Michigan’s 6th Congressional District. That is not to mention some Tea Party backed candidates who failed to even get on the actual primary ballots and other losses.
Of course, the Tea Party is not necessarily an anti-incumbent, “throw all the bums out” movement as they often endorse incumbent candidates. However, the only incumbent Republican Senators were actually targets of the Tea Party- Lugar in Indiana and Hatch in Utah. When they endorse current House Republican incumbents, those incumbents have prevailed in 19 out of 19 primary races. But, when a Tea Party endorsed candidate has taken on a Republican incumbent in a primary contest, their record is a dismal 27 losses in 27 races thus far. Hence, it would appear that the influence, at least as concerns electoral success, is somewhat overstated.
Where the Tea Party movement excels, however, is framing the discussion based on sound conservative principles of limited government, low taxes, fewer regulations, decreased spending and fiscal discipline. These are all ideas that resonate with Republican voters, if not independents and some Democrats also. By focusing the discussion and having an underlying principle clearly stated, they have helped lead the GOP back to where it belongs. However, it would be false to assert that an incumbent Republican or even that an establishment-backed Republican necessarily needs to fear the wrath of the Tea Party everywhere. In Indiana, before they latched onto Richard Mourdock, there were grumblings against Richard Lugar because Indiana is, at its heart, a conservative state and many in Indiana did not perceive Lugar as conservative any more. But, does anyone believe that the Tea Party would have success against a Susan Collins or Olympia Snowe in a more liberal state like Maine? Although there likely is a Maine Tea Party, it is doubtful that a candidate like Richard Mourdock would win in that state in a general election.
To a degree, Missouri is like Indiana, Texas and Utah- all basically conservative. Any Republican candidate for statewide office (Senate) will start with the leg-up in an election and more importantly, a conservative (Tea Party-backed included) will have that same leg-up, so Tea Party backed candidates will have a greater chance in conservative states. But, even here actual outcomes show a slightly different story. In 2012 primaries involving states that were won by John McCain in 2008, there were 59 contests in which the Tea Party backed a candidate. In these red states, they won 24 of these 59 contests- a 40.7% success rate. Meanwhile in the contests in blue states, Tea Party backed candidates prevailed in 47.9% of the contests (23 of 48 contests).
In those blue states, according to most pundits, the Republican candidate, who happens to be Tea Party-backed in these instances, should prevail in 14 of 23 contests. Another six are slated as close elections where, if the Tea Party-backed candidate prevails, it would illustrate their influence. Those races are Dan Lungren in California’s 7th District and Tom Strickland in the California 26th, Dan Benischek in Michigan 1st and Kerry Bentivolio in Michigan’s 11th, Dan Matthews in Washington 2nd, and Dick Muri in Washington’s 10th District. Meanwhile in red state contests, Tea Party-backed candidates are expected to take 13 of 15 races with only four (at this point) considered close: Jessica Puentas Bradshaw in the Texas 24th race, the Indiana Senate race with Richard Mourdock and Indiana’s 2nd District race with Jackie Walorski, and Mark Meadows’ bid in North Carolina’s 11th District.
Researching this article, it is interesting to note the difference in perceptions regarding the influence of the Tea Party depending on the source. Virtually every article from sources like Huffington Post, the New York Times, the Washington Post and the like concentrate on the alleged declining influence of the Tea Party. Meanwhile, articles from the likes of the Washington Examiner, American Thinker, Breitbart and others note the evolution of the Tea Party from marching protesters to deft campaign actors. What very few note is that the Tea Party movement is a rather new phenomena in electoral politics. In 2010, there were an estimated 1,000 Tea Party organizations spread throughout the United States. Today, that number stands at 600. However, as a political movement, a 60% survival rate is unusually high. One just needs to look at previous political “revolutions” that fizzled out as soon as the election was in the books- the John Anderson and Ross Perot candidacies come to mind. Even within the Republican Party, the influence of the Paulbots has certainly been pushed to the fringes of the GOP. Yes, they are vocal and they are loyal, but does anyone believe the Paulbots have the influence within the Republican Party currently enjoyed by the Tea Party?
There are three fairly high profile Senate primary contests yet to be decided where Tea Party backed candidates are vying for the nomination. In Arizona, the situation is complicated as they back Wil Carmona while Jeff Flake is considered the frontrunner and has received the endorsement of Sarah Palin. To a lesser extent, the candidacy of Kurt Bills in Minnesota for the Senate nomination could be of interest. Finally, the most important race will be in Wisconsin where the Tea Party-backed Mark Neumann is challenging former Governor Tommy Thompson for an open Democratic Senate seat. A Tea Party victory in Arizona and/or Wisconsin would be an exclamation point on this cycle’s primary season and definitely qualify as a Tea Party upset. I do not include the Minnesota race because there is nothing to lose as the eventual winner is expected to lose to Democratic incumbent Amy Klobuchar anyway. In Wisconsin, there is the opportunity to pick up a seat in the Senate and the Arizona race is an important Republican defense.
The bottom line is that for every high profile Tea Party victory, there is an equal number of high profile Tea Party defeats. In other areas where the Tea Party has claimed success, most notably Todd Akin’s recent win in Missouri, these were no-brainers from the start. But, just look a little west and one can see that a Tea Party backed candidate for an open Senate seat in Nebraska lost in a more conservative state than Missouri. However, because a candidate may lose does not signal the demise of the Tea Party, or even a lessening of influence. Conversely, a Tea Party victory in a swing state or close Senate/House race in a primary is only half the battle. They must still prevail in the general election. Some could be easier than others such as Mike Lee’s victory in Utah in 2010.
Even though the more liberal outlets like to emphasize the Tea Party defeats (Politico recently ran a story on how Fred Upton defeated a Tea Party candidate in Michigan as sort of a “ha ha” in response to Ted Cruz), the fact remains that Tea Party success is roughly where it was in 2010 when it first flexed its electoral muscle. Whether we are talking about the Tea Party two or five years from now, they have served a more important function than getting candidates elected to office. They have refocused the political conversation despite the derision bordering on slander by liberal outlets. Most importantly, they are the proverbial slap in the face the Republican Party needed to get them back to their core principles of limited government, low taxes, and decreased spending.