Death of the Tea Party? Don't be hasty

In 2013, rather than being blown into oblivion, the Tea Party looks set to be more relevant than ever

Could the Tea Party be more relevant than ever in 2013?
Ewan Watt
On 12 November 2012 13:53

The noble endeavor of stopping Barack Obama’s second term was always going to be a challenge.  It’s easy for critics to point towards a fiercely partisan media establishment, but other than a few hiccups, the Obama campaign has always been more disciplined in terms of both message and voter outreach. The power of presidential incumbency, even in today’s environment, should also never been underestimated.

But as we’ve heard countless times over the past few days, the Republican Party has problems. Compared to John McCain’s ill-fated run for the presidency four years ago, Mitt Romney actually lost votes. North Carolina, Indiana, and Nebraska’s Second Congressional symbolized the only states picked-up from four years previously. The rest came from reapportioned Electoral College votes. 

And yet if one is led to believe that the Republicans have been diagnosed with a terminal illness, reports indicated that the Tea Party is on its deathbed. After the fawning over President Obama’s re-election subsided, the media has been only too happy to rejoice at the passing of the movement that provided the Republican Party with the shot in the arm that saw the “largest legislative landslide in U.S. history.” However, reports of the Tea Party’s death have been greatly exaggerated. In fact, one could even argue that it’s more powerful than ever.

Of course, the Tea Party witnessed some setbacks last week. Representative Michelle Bachmann, the chair of the House Tea Party caucus, just won re-election, scraping past Democrat Jim Graves in Minnesota’s Sixth. In addition, despite his best efforts to call for a full recount, Representative Allen West looks set for the exit. Every movement faces challenges and the Tea Party is no different. 

But it’s in the Senate where most of the pundits claim the Tea Party has contributed to its own demise, namely in Indiana and Missouri.

It’s hard to dispute that Richard Mourdock, Indiana’s State Treasurer, was not a suitable candidate. For decades, Mourdock had been renowned in the state for attending Lincoln Day dinners in what seemed to be a perpetual effort to attain high office, most of the time unsuccessfully. But for those in Washington, his defeat of 36-year incumbent Senator Richard Lugar came as a surprise. It shouldn’t have. 

What was so aptly described as Incumbent Entitlement Syndrome, Senator Lugar didn’t lose because of ‘RINO’ tendencies or a well-executed Mourdock machine.  He lost “because he was no longer representing the people of Indiana. In theory and practice he has truly become a United States senator.” If the moderate wing of the Republican Party wants to see people like Lugar stay in office, advising them to live in the state they have been elected to represent would be a good start. 

And then there’s Representative Todd Akin of Missouri. Despite his two opponents in the Republican primary receiving endorsements from FreedomWorks for America and the Tea Party Express respectively, Akin has been repeatedly cited as yet another Tea Party failure. This is even after Sarah Palin, largely seen as the movement’s spokesperson, openly campaigned against him in the primary and called on a third party challenger to oust Akin from the race. 

A prominent social conservative who was always renowned for controversy, Akin’s primary victory was only made possible by a considerable donation from, you guessed it, Democrats. But yes, despite being bankrolled by Democrats and receiving no endorsement from FreedomWorks or the Tea Party itself, Akin was still a Tea Party candidate. In the eyes of the media at least. 

Although the Republican performances in last Tuesday’s Senate races have been nothing short of disastrous, the Tea Party – and one could argue Palin – has actually bolstered its presence in the upper chamber. 

Deb Fischer thumped Bob Kerrey in Nebraska, Ted Cruz won big in Texas, and Representative Jeff Flake fought off a strong challenge from Richard Carmona in Arizona. These names will add considerable weight to existing Tea Partiers in the Senate such as Mike Lee, Rand Paul, Jerry Moran, and Jim DeMint.  

Of course, other Tea Party-backed candidates like Josh Mandel in Ohio and Tom Smith in Pennsylvania came up short, but these were always going to be uphill battles. One cannot say the same of more established names like Representative Rick Berg in North Dakota and Representative Denny Rehberg in Montana. As the Tea Party welcomes three new members, it’s the National Republican Senatorial Committee that’s licking its wounds. 

We can expect to read plenty more ‘End of the Tea Party’ headlines in the coming weeks, but nothing could be further from the truth. As any staffer working for a Tea Party senator will tell you, this is a long game of patience with incremental progress. 

But circumstances also indicate that the movement will possess influence much greater than its numbers suggests. Just as the Tea Party helped resurrect the Republican Party with a landslide victory in 2010, the movement and its elected representatives will again play a fundamental role in this new phase of renewal, particularly with regards to immigration. Representatives from Border States, Cruz and Flake will be central to this.

In 2013, rather than being blown into oblivion, the Tea Party looks set to be more relevant than ever. 

Ewan Watt is a Washington DC-based consultant. You can follow him on @ewancwatt

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