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In a political season filled with twists and turns and surprises, the most significant changes are not the ones which have taken place or which will occur shortly. They are the ones which are signaled for the future by this year’s development.
As shocking as the Eric Cantor loss was, it was not the most important development in GOP politics. The fact that ensconced and seemingly safe establishment Republicans are finding themselves being challenged is at least mildly interesting. That their challengers are often not political rookies, but rather seasoned politicians looking to move up in the world is more than a little intriguing. That these ambitious political personages seem to be motivated less by personal interest and more by values and principles is potentially earth shattering, if they are the vanguard of a coming sea change in the GOP structure.
This development could be as much a game changer for the Republican Party as the spontaneous genesis of the Tea Party movement was in 2009.
A perfect case in point is New York State Assemblywoman Claudia Tenney. With a youthful appearance and charismatic demeanor, Tenney – who has less than two full terms in the Empire State’s Assembly under her belt – went after GOP Establishment favorite Richard Hanna with both guns blazing. An attorney and the owner of multiple businesses, Tenney’s short tenure in the Assembly would have made her seem to be a rookie to the political game. However, she comes from a family background in politics, law and business which gives her a both a grassroots perspective and the understanding of how things work in politics (and how they fail to work in Government) which would have made her a force to be reckoned with in the House of Representatives.
Tenney – who has been widely considered the single most Conservative member of the New York State Assembly – launched a challenge earlier this year against Richard Hanna, a two term Republican who is rated “Liberal” by VoteSmart. Hanna is – in fact – one of the most Liberal Republicans in the House. Hanna was swept into office in the GOP surge of 2010 against a Democrat who likewise rode the 2006 Democrat wave. The District has been in flux and no new member in any recent election won on his own merits. Both Hanna and his predecessor won as a result of national wholesale political trends.
Two years ago, Hanna was re-elected against a weak Democrat candidate. This year, the Democrats did not bother to field their own nominee, because Hanna is a Democrat in all but formal registration.
Assemblywoman Tenney – fed up with the lack of true Republican representation in her District – chose to mount a primary challenge. She highlighted Hanna’s turncoat voting record. She slammed him for his refusal to act on Conservative principles. And she gained ground.
In the end, Tenney lost the primary but gained something just as important. She got a reputation as a fighter who stands by her values. Incumbent Richard Hanna – the favorite of the State and National GOP Establishment – held onto the nomination by a mere six percent. This, despite the literal fortune spent by outside interests on propping up his campaign. In addition to the half a million dollars spent by his campaign, he was the beneficiary of media spending to the tune of $700,000 by a pro-gay rights PAC and another $100,000 by the Oneida Indian Nation, owner of the Turning Stone Resort casino. Sheldon Adelson’s PAC also paid for a media buy to help Hanna.
Well over a million dollars. In a primary race. To help an incumbent with no opponent from the other Party. And he won by a mere six percent.
The numbers aren’t what matter. The fact that Tenney lost and Hanna won isn’t what matters. What is important is that the GOP Establishment spent a fortune propping up their chosen candidate and his opponent and a far less well financed member of their own Party nearly took him out.
Stories like this will be told more and more often over the next several elections. Conservative Republicans who live and die by their principles will challenge Establishment incumbents. Nervous Party bosses and their super wealthy benefactors will spend what it takes to keep their guys in office but it won’t be enough. Money is a finite resource. Truth, principles and values have no limits.
As grassroots Republican voters become better educated about the issues thanks to talk radio and social media, as they grow more frustrated by evasive, overly slick politicians, money will become far less effective in convincing people to believe half truths and outright lies.
In the short run, the immediate victories of the David Brats over the Eric Cantors are more dramatic. They inspire cheers and euphoria by Conservatives whose spirits truly needed spectacular, unexpected wins. In the long run, however, the close races of Claudia Tenney and Conservatives like her who lost – but just barely – are far more important. They project a future where primary victories over the Establishment’s chosen few will become more common. They will be less surprising. Eventually, they will be the rule rather than the exception.
And when the exception has become the rule, when you see Claudia Tenney and men and women like her fighting on our behalf on the floors of the House and Senate, remember where it started. It started in 2014, with people who believed in the exceptional story of these United States, people who stood up to their own Party bosses and told them that the voters matter more than self-centered politicians, jaded Party leaders and money men whose interests often clash with the dreams and ambitions of America’s families.
It began in New York, the Bluest of Blue States, with an Assemblywoman who believed that her job is to serve the people and protect the Constitution.