The Tea Party may be the best thing that has happened to the Republican Party since Barack Obama got elected President. Its members, fed up and fired up, have sacrificed their time and personal pursuits to try to alter the direction of the government and effect real change. Much like the movement that helped propel Obama to the White House, the Tea Party has challenged the establishment and injected passion into politics. But now it could cost Republicans key Senate seats in November. These dual truths spotlight the state of America's two major political parties as the country heads into the midterms, examines Obama's first two years in office and looks beyond to 2012.
There are two significant differences between Obama's grass-roots upswell and the rise of the Tea Party adherents. First, Obama attracted people across a wide swath of the political spectrum, from the far left to just right of center; the Tea Party is almost exclusively hard right. Second, the Obamans were insurgent in their mind-set but downright establishment in their technology, organization, fundraising and ability to use the existing rules to beat the power players at their own game. For all its energy, the Tea Party has not had the chance to demonstrate the same sustained capacity for winning methodology and follow-through.
That means that while the Tea Partyers are enthusiastic and have earned a series of short-term victories, they aren't necessarily destined for electoral success this fall. Their penchant for supporting less mainstream, less electable, more erratic candidates, according to some worried senior Republican strategists, might jeopardize Republican chances in at least five Senate races in November and even the GOP presidential nominee in the general election two years hence.
The Colorado, Nevada and Pennsylvania Senate seats are all now held by Democrats; Florida and Kentucky have Republican incumbents. In Nevada, Tea Party favorite Sharron Angle beat establishment-backed candidates to become the nominee against the GOP's No. 1 target, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid. But Angle has made comments denigrating Social Security, Medicare and the Department of Education. Kentucky Republicans chose Rand Paul to run in the general election, also over a more mainstream candidate. Paul made national news with his controversial remarks about the civil rights laws of the 1960s. In Florida, grass-roots conservative support for another Tea Party darling, Marco Rubio, turned Governor Charlie Crist from a lock to win the seat as a Republican into a thriving independent candidate. A similar thing happened in Pennsylvania, where longtime moderate Republican incumbent Arlen Specter was chased out of the party by conservative anger over his heretical behavior. In desperation, he switched his registration to try to hold the seat as a Democrat. In Colorado, a strong run by Republican Ken Buck, another volatile conservative, for the Aug. 10 primary will result in the nomination of Buck or a weakened establishment choice who has been discombobulated and driven to the right by party activists.
With their unpredictable styles and imprudent mouths, the Tea Partyfavored candidates, so dominant in the primaries, have put their general contests in peril at an especially critical time when Republicans need to net 10 seats in order to win back control of the chamber. The Tea Party may display an admirable drive, but it is an indisputable reality that the same purity of views that has allowed the movement to dominate many primaries leaves the GOP vulnerable in November.
The Democrats in the Kentucky, Nevada and Colorado races now have the opportunity to so demonize the Republican nominees, based on their extreme issue positions and unartful statements, that they are rendered unelectable. This plays right into the White House dream scenario of turning the election from a referendum on Obama and his party's congressional leaders into a choice election for centrist voters. It also fires up Democratic loyalists and closes the so-called enthusiasm gap, as Democratic strategists and candidates wave the bloody shirt of the past votes and quotes of these surprise conservative candidates.
Given the political makeup of the states in which they are running and the national climate, the Republican nominees in all three contests should be heavily favored. Instead, national Republicans have had to devote precious resources to shore them up. Utah Republican Senator Bob Bennett, who lost his party's nomination under pressure from conservatives at a spring convention, is liberated to say in public what some Republicans are worried about privately. Bennett told the Associated Press last week that the Tea Party had "no strategy" and was making "mischief" that could cost Republicans all three seats.
And while the GOP may bid good riddance in the departures of Specter and Crist from the party they too often flouted party orthodoxy both men were likely more able to keep the seats in Republican hands than their replacements are. Democratic Congressman Joe Sestak, who bested Specter in the Pennsylvania primary, has a good chance to score a win in November. In Florida, Crist's high profile in the aftermath of the BP oil spill and a contested August Democratic primary has kept him ahead in the polls. And if Crist wins, he is expected to caucus with the Democrats.
Given the unrelentingly bleak spring and summer of 2010, from the Gulf oil spill to the stuttering economy, the Republicans may be able to regain power simply by riding the strong anti-Obama, anti-Washington tide and letting midterm magic do its work. Then they would be see a host of Beltway outsiders penetrate the inside to set the terms of political and policy debates as Obama gears up, as expected, for re-election.
But if Republicans lose Senate seats they should by all rights have won, November will see not just hand-wringing over what might have been, but a soul-searching debate about how to harness the energy of Tea Party conservatives to actually win elections and govern in the future. As Obama has learned in recent months, keeping a movement engaged and on message isn't the easiest thing to do.