Don’t count out the Tea Party so quickly

Many in the media are declaring the death of the Tea Party. After all, Tea Party candidates are not winning primaries in 2014 the way they did in 2010 and 2012. So the movement must be all washed up, right?

“The Tea Party’s Over,” declared the National Journal. “That doesn’t mean the influence of the conservative grass roots has petered out. If anything, it demonstrates that conservatives have already reshaped the House to their liking in recent elections.”

The GOP establishment “is confronting a Tea Party suffering from waning enthusiasm, controversial candidates, and bad publicity, early signs of a shift in the movement that rocked politics and left a mark, from deep budget cuts to immigration and last fall’s government shutdown,” said a story on Tea Party influence on GOP identity in the Tampa Bay Times.

A grass-roots group launched “Operation American Spring” and bragged that it would draw an estimated 10 to 30 million Tea Partiers and like-minded individuals to Washington, D.C., last week. The number of demonstrators was closer to 10 actual people than 30 million. This was a group that planned to take over Washington in an “armed revolt,” to rid the government of President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, House Speaker John Boehner … well, it was hard to keep all of their planned priorities straight. It was all done “as a start toward constitutional restoration.” Because of course, electing a president and having him win the needed majority of Electoral College votes as well as the popular vote – twice – obviously is unconstitutional.

Needless to say, the few that showed up didn’t accomplish much. They complained that it rained – that’s why people didn’t attend. They promise there will be more by Memorial Day, the traditional time the Rolling Thunder motorcycle riders show up in D.C. I’m not holding my breath.

Which brings us back to Tea Party candidates. Senate Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky faces a wealthy Tea Party challenger in businessman Matt Bevin. Voting is still going on as I write this, but due to several missteps by Bevin’s campaign, not the least of which was when Bevin attended a meeting devoted to cockfighting, McConnell looks to breeze through – the latest polls show him up by 20 points. (Update: McConnell won, 60% to 35%.)

In Mississippi, conservative Sen. Thad Cochran faces a Tea Party challenger, state Sen. Chris McDaniel. But recent news threatens to derail that primary challenge. A conservative blogger and McDaniel supporter broke into a nursing home where Cochran’s wife has lived for several years with advanced dementia. The blogger took pictures of Rose Cochran for an online video to slam the senator for – something. Rumors about an affair with a staffer? The McDaniel campaign’s muddled and changing response only made the candidate look worse.

In North Carolina, state House Speaker Thom Tillis won the GOP primary by beating back multiple Tea Party challengers, including one who compared food stamps to slavery. In Idaho (also having a primary today), video of a GOP gubernatorial debate went viral when two “fringe” candidates were included – one wearing a Duck Dynasty-type beard and a biker in leather who said a “Masai prophet” told him he would be president. I don’t think incumbent Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter is too worried about them. indeed, the real Tea Party challenge is state Sen. Russ Fulcher. But including the two crazies in the debate limited the challenger’s screen time. (Update: Otter won, 51% to 44%.)

Yes, the “establishment” wing of the party seems to be winning this year. But are we?

Candidates who used to be described as “mainstream” or “moderate” have veered sharply right – so sharply right that in North Carolina, Tillis says he doesn’t believe there should even be a minimum wage. He backs stricter voter ID laws and rejects the state expansion of Medicaid.

And the establishment candidates are benefiting from millions being spent in TV ads. Mainstream GOP groups backed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Realtors, and others are pouring money into races to outspend Tea Party candidates. In Republican Idaho, groups have spent $700,000 on ads for Tea Party challenger state Rep. Bryan Smith. Incumbent Congressman Mike Simpson has been the recipient of more than $2 million in ads from D.C.-based corporate groups. (Update: Simpson won, 62% to 38%.)

In The New York Times, Harvard government and sociology professor Theda Skocpol insists that the Tea Party has won by “Leverage, not Popularity.”

“The Tea Party has won the heart and soul of the Republican Party. This is due not to its popularity, but to its challenges and threats of challenges to candidates who are less right-wing, or willing to compromise,” she wrote. “The big picture then, is clear enough. Tea Party forces have overwhelmingly won the war. All the Republicans running for the Senate this year have adopted hard-line Tea Party policy positions across the board.

“Until Republicans move toward the middle ground in important policy areas and cooperate with Democrats to accomplish what most Americans want, we cannot say that the Tea Party is dead or dying. Tea Party forces do not have to be popular or win most elections to maintain their extremist grip on one of America’s two great political parties.”

House Speaker John Boehner admitted it the day before the six-state primary election: “There’s not that big a difference between what you call the Tea Party and your average conservative Republican.”



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