Washington • Tea party enthusiasts were stoked last week as one of their own, Dave Brat, toppled House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in an upset no one saw coming. Seriously, the cable networks had to rush political pundits into their studios to wax philosophically about the unexpected results.
In South Carolina, though, Sen. Lindsey Graham beat back a challenge — six challengers, actually — from the right flank by refusing just to be angry and frustrated. He touted compromise, and he won.
"People are really saying, ‘OK, enough already,’ " Graham told The Atlantic’s Molly Ball. "They’re starting to push back from trying to define conservatism in a fashion where there is no room for solving problems."
Polls have shown the tea party movement, which came about around the same time as President Barack Obama took office, has waned among Republican voters, though it still holds powerful sway in some corners of the country. Elections this year have been a mixed bag: Tea partyers are elated about Brat in Virginia and Senate challenger Chris McDaniel in Mississippi but saddened by the wins by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky and Whip John Cornyn in Texas.
The conventional wisdom is that the GOP is still trying to find — and define — itself. Is the tea party pulling the strings or has the old guard kept it at bay? Do voters want Washington to find solutions or to import solutions by changing Washington?
Let’s make a couple things clear: Elements of the tea party are very much alive, as they have been for decades and likely will be for years to come. The tea party label is broad and generic, and every defeated incumbent isn’t a victim of a tea party success.
Former Sen. Bob Bennett became the first tea party trophy after being knocked out by the growing conservative movement in 2010. He lost at the Utah Republican Party convention, where 86 percent of delegates expressed a favorable attitude toward the tea party movement. Some 71 percent of those same delegates said they’d nominate someone other than Sen. Orrin Hatch in 2012.
But, by then, a new crush of delegates favored Hatch (he got through the convention and won a primary bout) and only 57 percent of the new folks said they aligned with the tea party.
For his part, Bennett says he got rolled in the 2010 wave — as would have Hatch if he were up then — but the new landscape shows that candidates can prepare for such challenges.
"The bottom line is the tea party can pick off an unsuspecting candidate, but it no longer has the ability to beat somebody who will organize for it and go after it with an organized campaign," the former three-term senator says. "In Utah, they beat me with a national tsunami and two years later, they couldn’t do that to Orrin Hatch."
Part of that is simple math. There will always be a discontented voter bloc — on the right with a Democrat in the White House and vice versa with a Republican commander in chief — that newcomers can woo. Incumbents who aren’t in touch with their voters, and who take for granted an easy election, are vulnerable.
Primaries bring out the most die-hard voters, not the ones looking for the status quo. Cantor didn’t realize the swell building against him quickly enough. There wasn’t much Bennett could have done four years ago, either, to combat the anti-Washington attitude. Hatch, though, saw it and took it on.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who was tempted to run against Hatch but stuck with the House, says it’s not about the tea party being on the upswing or downswing, but about the voters’ will.
"Upsets happen whether you call them the tea party or not when you get voters who think that the incumbent is the wrong person for the job. That happens," says Chaffetz, R-Utah. "If there’s a lesson as much as anything, it’s that you need to pay attention to politics at home. Lindsey Graham was very bold in his stances but won overwhelmingly in a crowded field. It’s the contrast of how Bob Bennett ran a campaign and Orrin Hatch ran a campaign."
To wit, some would say the same tea party that took out Bennett is dead, or at least a shadow of its former self. But, as some elections show, the movement still lives on and Republicans best take notice.
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