US 2012: The Tea Party fixes a strong brew, but will the voters drink it?

By J Brooks Spector 10 August 2012

What with all the attention to the presidential horse race between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, readers could be forgiven for forgetting that there are a lot more contests across America. And in a number of those, the Tea Party, once thought to be a dwindling force within the Republican Party, has gained some surprising leverage. J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a look.

The presidential race in America usually gets the lion’s share of public and media attention in America’s quadrennial elections, but as Daily Maverick readers almost certainly know by now, it is not the only election in the US this year. About a third of the Senate, all 435 members of the House of Representatives, several dozen governorships, thousands of state legislators, county executives and council members, mayors, city councillors and dozens of other offices are also up for selection by voters. Among these, several senatorial elections are among most important.

With the primaries virtually completed, these races are in much clearer focus. Among these, a distinct pattern seems to be emerging with the selection of candidates who give allegiance to Tea Party-style political ideas. Tea Party-style ideals matter because Republicans believe—and many Democrats fear—the electoral map and the voters’ collective anti-incumbent feeling about Congress may give Republicans a good shot at claiming a majority in the Senate. If most of these Tea Party-aligned candidates win their individual elections, even if the GOP doesn’t gain a narrow 51- or 52-seat majority, the Republican Party as a whole then moves that much further to the right.

This, in turn, means a sharper tension between the more conservative and relatively more moderate wings of that party in the Senate. Moreover, by that calculation the party as a whole would be even less willing join Democrats in endorsing any bi-partisan consensus efforts designed to pass particularly contentious measures. This, in turn, would be a predictor of continuing acrimony over budget and tax measures in the congressional session beginning January 2013.

Among 17 contested Senate races, plus Republican stronghold Texas, the Tea Party movement has embraced half dozen Republican candidates. Especially interesting races include the ones in Texas, Missouri, Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Indiana.

In Texas, Ted Cruz ultimately coasted to an easy 13-point victory over Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in a runoff election and is a virtual lock to win the general election. Cruz is a political newbie who was “blessed” by Sarah Palin in his primary race. Gail Collins, the famously acid-tongued columnist at The New York Times, couldn’t hold back about Cruz’ victory when she wrote, “Texas Republicans nominated a Senate candidate who is worried about protecting the world’s golf courses from the United Nations. Republicans, I think you need to get a grip.” 

Meanwhile, in Indiana, Richard Mourdock had earlier upended veteran incumbent Richard Lugar; former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson is being pursued by two candidates; and in Nebraska, Deb Fischer won the right to take on former Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey. Collins, poking some more fun at the wackier statements by these right-leaning candidates, noted Mourdock has managed to become “involved in a controversy over whether or not he compared Barack Obama’s auto industry bailout to slavery. We do not really need to resolve the issue, except to say that Mourdock is fond of making convoluted historical analogies and that he really, really did not like the auto bailout, despite Indiana’s rather large population of autoworkers.” Admit it, like or dislike her, she has a real knack for taking the mickey out of a politician.

In Missouri, three different Republicans tried to portray themselves as the candidate most strongly aligned with Tea Party values before Congressman Todd Akin won the right to challenge incumbent Sen. Claire McCaskill, whose candidacy was deemed to be nearly ready for the ICU. Political observers now believe the Democrats have caught a break when Akin won the Republican nomination. Akin has a history of over-the-top statements such as comparing federal involvement in student loans to the “stage three cancer of socialism” as well as his wild-eyed assertion that liberalism is grounded in “hatred of God.” 

But some Democrats argue Akin’s real vulnerability is not his eye-rolling tongue, but his errant hand—his voting hand that is. He joined 23 other congressmen (and against 147 Republicans) to oppose the Training and Research for Autism Improvements Nationwide Act; was one of 13 congressmen to give a thumbs down on a motion “expressing the support of the House of Representatives for the goals and ideals of the National School Lunch Program”; and joined 10 others to vote against a measure “expressing the sense of the House of Representatives that providing breakfast in schools through the National School Breakfast Program has a positive impact on classroom performance.” 

In Akin’s defence, his campaign managers said the man was only expressing his political conscience. McCaskill was bracing for a hugely tough race but as more Missourians are barraged with Akin’s voting record, the smart money may move in her direction. This race will be lots of fun to watch. 

Meanwhile, in Nebraska, former Sen. Bob Kerrey will now be positioned in an uphill fight against Deb Fischer. As a result, he has been issuing statements pinning Tea Party-dom on Fischer as a kind of badge of dishonour. In one of these, referencing Fischer’s statements about America’s social security (government-managed old age retirement pension system) program, Kerrey’s campaign manager said of Fischer, “She is either sending smoke signals to her Tea Party friends or she is grossly uninformed on what Social Security is.” 

As a result of all of this sturm und drang among the Republicans, if the Democrats manage to hang on with a slender majority, new senators like Cruz could be expected to draw together with conservatives like Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Rand Paul of Kentucky, putting them at serious odds with Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in intra-party debates over strategy, tactics and objectives. 

If that happens, McConnell’s travails would come to resemble Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner’s predicament in this past term, in which he tried to hammer out complex, fragile deals with Democrats to address the country’s fiscal snarls while holding fractious Republicans together to support the deals he brokered. Alternatively, should the Republicans actually win a senate majority, McConnell would be forced to find some kind of balance between the DeMint-Paul wing and the remaining moderates such as Maine Sen. Susan Collins in order to govern that chamber. 

Perhaps sensing the first shift in this political wind for Republicans, Richard Mourdock told the media the other day, “I notice that Mitch McConnell is speaking at a Tea Party rally (in Kentucky with Rand Paul) soon.” Mourdock had campaigned with Cruz, and Cruz in turn credited Mourdock’s insurgent victory with inspiring him to run for his own nomination. Mourdock then added, “Just the fact that the Republican leadership is willing to reach out to those folks is important. If that kind of coalition comes together, on Day 1 it will be if not a literal majority a real large majority, and I think on Day 1 we will jump right into the frying pan.” Sort of a shot across the bow of McConnell’s ship.

Some Democrats are not entirely above rubbing the hands over this looming battle for the soul of the Republicans – at least as it may play out in the Senate. For example, Patty Murray, the Democratic senator from Washington, said, “I think it’s more of their problem than ours.” Murray is chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Matt Canter, a spokesman for Murray’s committee added, “The Tea Party positions and Tea Party policies and Tea Party agenda is going to be a huge vulnerability.” 

While all this has been going on at the state level, the Romney campaign has gotten caught in another one of those statements that may get the right wing of his party into a snit that he is guilty of yet another “flip flop”. Mitt Romney has gained the ire of conservative allies when his spokeswoman offered up praise for his accomplishments when Romney was governor of Massachusetts.

On Wednesday, campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul invoked Massachusetts’s expansion of health coverage on Fox TV News as their defence against a tough new ad funded by an Obama-supporting Super PAC, in which a former steelworker whose plant was closed by Bain Capital blames Romney for his family’s loss of health insurance and his wife’s subsequent death from cancer. In response, Saul said, “To that point, if people had been in Massachusetts, under Governor Romney’s health-care plan, they would have had health care. There are a lot of people losing their jobs and losing their health care in President Obama’s economy.” Eh? Que?

Watch for some really dog-eat-dog, down-and-dirty, “and so’s your old man” charge and counter-charge politicking in these state-wide races, every bit as much as the one between the Romney and Obama camps, as the campaign moves through the remaining two and a half months before the November elections. DM

Read more:

  • Tea Party Aims to Apply Its Touch to the Senate G.O.P. in the New York Times
  • Texas and the tea party – The looming battle at the Economist
  • An extreme conservative GOP candidate for Senate in Missouri in the Washington Post
  • The Wacky Primary Voters, a column by Gail Collins in the New York Times
  • Romney spokeswoman praises his efforts on health-care reform as governor in the Washington Post

Photo: Tea Party Patriots supporter James Manship, whose nickname is States, reads from the Declaration of Independence during a Flag Ceremony at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, November 2, 2010. After a long and bitter campaign, Americans cast their votes on Tuesday in elections that could sweep Democrats from power in Congress and slam the brakes on President Barack Obama’s legislative agenda. REUTERS/Molly Riley


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