Knowledge 2.0.
18 March 2018 19:43 (South Africa)

US: Republican establishment spoils Tea Party's party

  • J Brooks Spector
    brooks spector 02 BW
    J Brooks Spector

    Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. Spector is a Writing Fellow of the Unit of Johannesburg’s Institute for Advanced Studies. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

  • World

Some of the key primary elections for important races heading into America’s mid-term election have happened and some politically potent trends are already becoming clear, heading into the November election. J. BROOKS SPECTOR reviews some of the early results.

Unlike many nations that carry out elections, the American electoral process can seem a virtually unending, seemingly chaotic jumble of conventions, caucuses, primaries, and elections. And then the cycle repeats itself yet again - forever and ever, but without that obligatory “amen.” This year, of course, is a mid-term election for the US. That means the presidential election is still two years away, but the entire House of Representatives, a third of the Senate, numerous governors, mayors, state legislators and thousands of other lesser offices will still be up for grabs in November 2014.

This election later this year also means that for many of the races, there are also party primaries that select candidates for that general election in November. What makes it especially confusing for many watching from afar is all of the primaries take place on different Tuesdays throughout the American spring.

Save for the actual general election in November, the selection of the date for a primary is a matter for individual state governments to decide. (Selection of the dates for the presidential primaries in a presidential election year are generally the responsibility of the respective state political parties, in accordance with the national committees of the two parties.)

While the primary elections in the elections this past Tuesday did not decide all of the candidates for all of the important elections across the country, nevertheless, the results from some key races will have major national impact. And the manner of victory for some successful Republican candidates as exemplars of their party’s establishment is likely to have an important impact on the November election as well.

Nevertheless, this was not the Republican establishment as it was in the past. AP election observers noted, for example, that across the board, rather than selecting those political bomb-throwing, flamboyant Tea Party-style candidates, “GOP voters again chose solidly conservative nominees while rejecting the most extreme and outlandish types who led the party to painful losses in 2010 and 2012. The simple way to view this year's results, thus far, is to say ‘establishment’ Republicans are outperforming tea party insurgents. That's largely true. But it blurs the extent to which nearly all Republican candidates — including some who have been in Congress for decades — have shifted rightward to stay in step with ardently conservative voters who helped create the tea party in 2009 and still dominate GOP primaries [author’s italics]. The differences between tea party and non-tea party Republicans are shrinking. Often it's merely tone and experience that separate them. Tone and experience matter, however, and Tuesday's GOP voters chose the less bombastic and unpredictable conservatives in most cases.”

Perhaps the most important primary election winner was Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell – the long-time incumbent who is also the Republicans’ Senate Minority Leader. Challenged by an avowed Tea Party candidate, McConnell’s campaign drove a full-on effort that never let up and scored a convincing win over businessman Matt Bevin. The AP, in its election round up, noted, “Tea party conservatives would love to have knocked off McConnell, who they view as too ready to compromise with Democrats. They once held high hopes for Matt Bevin, a businessman making his first run for office. But Bevin struggled with everything from his official biography to an appearance at a cockfighting rally, for which he apologised…. McConnell positioned himself as a solid conservative who makes tough decisions and gives Kentuckians a powerful voice in Washington.” McConnell now faces Alison Lundergan Grimes – Kentucky’s politically savvy Democratic secretary of state - who similarly won her primary election.

The Washington Post, noting the two primary winners, commented, “Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell cruised to an easy victory in Kentucky’s GOP primary, but in Alison Lundergan Grimes he faces his biggest test yet. Grimes, who hails from a prominent political family and has ties to the Clintons, delivered a barn burner of speech Tuesday night, revealing herself as a much more sure-footed candidate with a kind of Southern swagger reminiscent of late Texas Governor Ann Richards.”

Observers say these results have set up a crucial battle for the November election. Should McConnell actually lose to Grimes, it may be one of the most important opportunities for the Democrats to hold onto their slender margin as the Senate’s majority party. This is a particularly tough year for Democrats as many of the Senate seats in contention this year are held by Democrats who are seen as threatened by a national political trend leaning Republican.

Meanwhile, in the Georgia primary, among Republicans, Dollar General stores CEO David Perdue and Congressman Jack Kingston came in ahead of five other candidates and the two will meet in a runoff on 22 July to try to gain retiring Saxby Chambliss’ Senate seat. The final winner of this arduous scramble will face Democratic nominee Michelle Nunn, the daughter of Sam Nunn who was a conservative Democratic senator for decades. Nunn made news on the very last day of the campaign when she declined to say if she would have voted for the Affordable Care Act, had she been in the Senate when it came up for a vote back during Obama’s first term as president.

In Oregon, the paediatric neurosurgeon Monica Wehby came out tops in a five-person field to clinch the Republican nomination for the Senate. Her campaign was thoroughly enlivened by charges her wealthy ex-boyfriend had called the cops on her for stalking him – even though he says he is now backing her in her bid for office. Now is that love or what?

And in Arkansas, neither incumbent Democratic senator Mark Pryor and Republican challenger Tom Cotton, a congressman, had any opposition in their respective primary races. They will face each other in a deeply contested race, come November.

In governors’ races, in Arkansas, voters (or at least those who chose to cast their ballots in a primary election in a non-presidential election year) picked two former congressmen — Democrat Mike Ross and Republican Asa Hutchinson - to fight over who will replace Democratic governor Mike Beebe. Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, a millionaire businessman, Tom Wolf, captured the Democratic nomination so he can challenge incumbent governor Tom Corbett. Corbett is generally viewed as one of the nation's most vulnerable Republican governors running this year. And in Georgia, Republican incumbent Nathan Deal gained renomination while state senator Jason Carter – yup, grandson of former president Jimmy Carter - was unopposed in the Democratic primary.

In an interesting and slightly ironic moment, Asa Hutchinson was slowed down just a bit when he arrived to vote because he managed to forget to bring a photo ID, as required by a new Arkansas law (one of such laws strongly supported by Republicans across the nation) requiring voters to proffer a valid photo identification before they are allowed to vote. Afterwards, Hutchinson’s spokeswoman said the candidate did find this a “little bit of an inconvenience,” even as he still supported the new law.  (One wonders if a poor, under-documented tenant farmer would have only had a bit of inconvenience when they tried to vote – or would they have been turned away from the polling station as a potential criminal?)

In other races with well-known names in them, the highly regarded Clinton administration Federal Emergency Management Agency Director, James Lee Witt, was unopposed in the Democratic primary for a congressional seat in Arkansas. And in Pennsylvania, Chelsea Clinton's mother-in-law, Marjorie Margolies, was defeated in her effort to come back to Congress in a four-person Democratic primary race for her district.

Coming next are 3 June primaries in Alabama, California, Iowa, Mississippi, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico and South Dakota.  Texas has a primary runoff election this coming Tuesday.

Looking over the races decided in this primary week, veteran political reporter Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post offered his sense of the winners and losers at this point in the electoral cycle. In his view, the National Republican Senatorial Committee is a top winner, together with Senator Mitch McConnell for his race.

As Cillizza had written, “North Carolina state House Speaker Thom Tillis, widely seen as the most electable GOP candidate against Sen. Kay Hagan (D), won the nomination without a runoff on May 6. Then, Tuesday night, Mitch McConnell easily dispatched a tea party challenge in Kentucky and, perhaps even more important to the GOP's chances of winning back the Senate, the two most electable Republicans -- businessman David Perdue and Rep. Jack Kingston -- advanced to a runoff in Georgia. In Oregon, the NRSC got its preferred candidate as well in paediatric neurosurgeon Monica Wehby -- although she had to weather a bruising primary and remains a long shot in the Democratic-leaning state against Sen. Jeff Merkley (D) this fall. Still, the NRSC has not only survived but thrived in the primary season so far. That's a far cry from where the committee stood in 2010 and 2012,” when it was battened about the head and shoulders by those insurgent Tea Party candidates.

In addition, the national Chamber of Commerce put its muscle behind McConnell and Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson in their primary fights against Tea Party challengers, as well as in support of Congressman Jack Kingston in Georgia. Earlier in the month, it had come up with a cool million dollars for candidate Thom Tillis as well.

Meanwhile, among the army of consultants, strategists and campaign polling specialists that inhabit American elections, and underscoring the importance of this cadre, Saul Shorr and Anna Greenberg, media consultant and pollster, respectively, were the keys to Tom Wolf's successful campaign to gain the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in Pennsylvania. They steered a novice candidate - who just happened to have $10 million to throw into the race on his own behalf – to a convincing win. Well, money isn’t everything, but it helps, obviously.

On the other hand, Cillizza says the big loser this time around is the Tea party, this a movement that seemed likely to capture the entire Republican Party not so very long ago. As Cillizza noted, “It's not just that tea party candidates are losing, it's how they're losing. Bevin, who once looked like a credible candidate, wound up in the final days of the race fending off charges of attending a cockfight. Bryan Smith in Idaho ran such a poor campaign that the Club For Growth decided to walk away from it rather than throw more good money after bad. Neither Phil Gingrey nor Paul Broun, two tea party favourites, came anywhere close to contention in the Georgia Senate primary…. These candidacies are not slowly disappearing into nothing; they are exploding like the death of a star.”

Also losing out are a number of former members of Congress such as Marjorie Margolies, giving a nod to the idea that in this year’s politics, having “Washington” on one’s c.v. as part of an effort to get back into the game may well be a losing proposition this time around. And endorsements, even one from Hillary Clinton for her sisterly mom-in-law, Marjorie Margolies, didn’t do it. Observers don’t, however, see this as a bad mark for Clinton’s own increasingly likely candidacy for the presidential nomination two years hence, if for no other reason than that the whole idea of endorsements making a difference may just be overplayed. (Of course there is that tricky little counter example of Ted Kennedy’s near-dying embrace of Barack Obama back in 2008 to help cinch his nomination victory that can be cited as a counter example.)

In all of this early churning, one thing that doesn’t seem to be making real waves at this point is Obamacare. Perhaps that is because more than 8 million people have now successfully signed up for health care under the new law. Or, perhaps, it is because virtually every attack ad funded by one of those superPAC political advocacy committees that features someone who purportedly had suffered greatly under the health care act turns out not to have been disadvantaged after all. Perhaps opposition to Obamacare has become a wasting asset for Republican shock troops.

Of course, once America moves into the general election phase of things, post-Labour Day in early September, it could change if there are politically damaging revelations of real (as opposed to feigned) problems in Obamacare, on the part of sizable shares of the electorate. But perhaps the early spike of attack ads could be part of a miscalculation on the part of Republican strategists to spread their anti-Democratic attack too broadly.

Right now, many Republicans are champing at the bit to have a go at a variety of presumed Obama administration scandals such as the deaths in Benghazi and the lengthy IRS (the tax man’s) inquiries into conservative political advocacy groups’ requests for tax exemptions. And the House of Representatives will soon have yet another committee that will, once again, plough through the rumours as well as evidence on Benghazi, searching for an elusive “smoking gun” that proves misbehaviour by Obama administration officials – or worse.

However, perhaps the most dangerous challenge for the Obama administration – and thus affecting Democratic candidates more generally – is that the Veterans Administration has been accused of serious, major problems in its dealings with its clients’ medical needs. Veterans (including the large body of individuals who have served in Afghanistan or Iraq) are a politically potent group – albeit more generally Republican than Democratic in disposition. If this issue is not handled adroitly - and speedily - at the highest levels, and seen to have been dealt with decisively, it may well harm conservative Democratic congressional candidates in marginal districts, or at the senatorial election level in states leaning Republican generally.

If that happens, the Democrats’ increasingly meagre chances of retaining their hold on the Senate will be threatened further. And if that comes to pass, the last two years of the Obama administration will be one continuing cold shower for the president. It will make it harder than ever for Obama to achieve anything substantial for that legacy, leaving him to govern through the “small ball” of presidential executive orders or some increasingly unlikely foreign policy breakthroughs. DM

Read more:

  • News Guide: Primary elections Tuesday in 6 states at the AP
  • Mitch McConnell faces biggest test yet in race against Alison Lundergan Grimes at the Washington Post
  • Winners and losers from the May 20 ‘Super Tuesday’ primaries, a column by Chris Cillizza in the Washington Post
  • Analysis: GOP avoids past mistakes in Senate picks at the AP
  • Democrats Seek Issue to Buoy Turnout in Midterms at the New York Times
  • Payback: GOP incumbents learn how to win at

Photo: Jennifer Brandt, along with protestors with Patriots4America, Conservative Party USA, and Special Operations Speaks, gathers for a 'Call to Action' rally on the one-year anniversary of the Benghazi terrorist attack outside the US Capitol in Washington, DC USA, 11 September 2013. Protestors believe President Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are responsible for the deaths that occurred at the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya. EPA/JIM LO SCALZO

  • J Brooks Spector
    brooks spector 02 BW
    J Brooks Spector

    Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. Spector is a Writing Fellow of the Unit of Johannesburg’s Institute for Advanced Studies. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

  • World

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