2010 was the year of the Tea Party. It seems now that the movement’s impact was a flash in the pan, however. The once mighty grassroots effort flopped in 2012 and continued to slide toward irrelevance in 2014. How did the spontaneous uprising against President Obama’s liberal policies fizzle so quickly, especially since President Obama himself is more unpopular than ever?
In 2010, it seemed that the grass roots conservative movement would shake the nation and upend the Obama Administration. That year saw the Democrats take a “shellacking” as Republicans took control the House of Representatives in a landslide of historic proportions. The Republican class of 2010 included such notable names as Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz.
In the wake of 2010, many conservatives expected the Tea Party sweep to continue into 2012 and beyond. The Tea Party’s winning streak would end only two years later in 2012, however. That year began for conservatives with high hopes for not only unseating President Obama, but for winning control of the Senate as well. In the final tally, Republicans not only lost the presidential election but two additional Senate seats as well.
While the targeting of Tea Party groups by President Obama’s IRS had an impact on the election, a number of the 2012 losses can be directly attributed to the unforced errors and amateurish campaigns of poorly vetted Tea Party candidates. The names of Christine O’Donnell, Todd Aiken, and Richard Mourdock will live in infamy among conservatives. The roots of the Tea Party losses in 2014 can be found in these failures of 2012.
The Tea Party’s biggest mistake of the 2014 cycle was pitting itself against the Republican establishment rather than maintaining a focus on unseating Democrats and fielding primary candidates for open seats. In 2014, the highest profile Tea Party candidates were fielded against Republican incumbents, many with sterling conservative voting records. There was Matt Bevin who ran against Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, Steve Sterling who tried to unseat John Cornyn in Texas, Milton Wolf who challenged Pat Roberts in Kansas and Chris McDaniel who ran a strong campaign against Thad Cochran in Mississippi. All of these candidates lost in hotly contested races in spite of being heavily supported by Tea Party groups.
These Tea Partiers failed to unseat the incumbent Republicans for largely the same reasons that 2012 Tea Partiers failed against the Democrats. There was poor vetting in the case of Milton Wolf, who, as it was revealed late in the campaign, liked to post graphic x-ray pictures of serious injuries on Facebook and joke about them, and Chris McDaniel, whose talk radio recordings proved a treasure trove of embarrassing comments. There were unforced errors such as Matt Bevin’s appearance at a rally to legalize cockfighting. Steve Stockman, who Christopher Hooks of Politico called “the Lone Star state’s weirdest lawmaker,” ran a campaign that may not have included a single public appearance.
It seems that Republican primary voters have learned to stop casting aside perfectly good candidates for the flavor-of-the-month just because they have an established and successful career in politics. When in a life-or-death struggle with liberal Democrats, experience in Washington can be a good thing. This is especially true when the incumbents have strong conservative voting records as McConnell, Cornyn and Roberts do.
The value of experience may have been driven home to Republican voters in October 2013 with the defund debacle. The attempt to defund Obamacare last year was led by Tea Party favorites Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah). The pair browbeat reticent Republicans into falling in line with their plan to defund the Affordable Care Act, which had, in reality, included its own funding.
The flaw in the Cruz-Lee plan was that the Republicans did not hold a Senate majority, let alone one that could override an Obama veto. Compounding their error, the pair made no attempt to swing the support of vulnerable Democrats to their cause. When the Democrats predictably refused to defund their pet project, the Republicans eventually were forced to cave on their demands to prevent a federal default. Because Obamacare was self-funded, it was implemented on schedule even as national parks were closed. To add insult to injury, the government shutdown distracted the media from the story of Obamacare’s disastrous rollout.
Ironically, the biggest Tea Party successes of 2014 had little support from national Tea Party groups. Dave Brat, the insurgent candidate who unseated Eric Cantor in the largest upset of the Republican primary season, was not funded or backed by national Tea Party groups until after he won. Another so-called Tea Party candidate, Ben Sasse, who won the Republican Senate nomination for a vacant seat in Nebraska, was actually supported by both “establishment” and Tea Party Republicans according to The Atlantic. Sasse was the second choice of Tea Party groups and was attacked by FreedomWorks before the group changed its mind and supported him.
Polling by Gallup shows that that in its early days, the Tea Party found strong support among Republicans. Between 2010 and 2014, Tea Party support among Republicans fell by 20 points (to 41 percent) and opponents doubled (to 11 percent).
Among Americans at large, the story is much the same. The Tea Party had the support of about one in three Americans in 2010. Opposition surged ahead of the 2012 elections and again in late 2013 in the wake of the government shutdown. Going into the 2014 election season, Tea Party opponents outnumbered supporters by 27-23 percent according to Gallup. An even larger segment of the population simply does not care about the Tea Party.
The Tea Party fizzled for two reasons. First, the group tried to take on not one, but both, parties with candidates of poor quality. Second, the group faced a backlash because of the poor strategy involved in the attempt to defund Obamacare. The Tea Party alienated its natural consistency in the Republican Party by attacking party stalwarts with the label of “RINO” and nearly killing the party’s chances in 2014 with the government shutdown.
At this point, with only 41 percent approval in the GOP, the Tea Party label is not necessarily helpful to Republicans even among the party base. With only 23 percent approval among voters, it may well be toxic in a general election. Successful Tea Party candidates must follow the Ben Sasse model and appeal to both factions of the GOP.
Nevertheless, the Tea Party is not dead and will likely live on as a faction of the Republican Party. As Michael Tanner pointed out in National Review, the Tea Party is doing what it set out to do even without any of its candidates winning. The Tea Party has forced the Republican Party back to the right after years of Bush-era spending. The knowledge that they will face a Tea Party challenge from the right if they drift too far toward the center will hold the feet of Republican incumbents to the fire for years to come.
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