The Tea Party is still a powerful force in GOP politics

You shouldn't judge the movement's viability based on electoral losses this week — or even this year

(Image credit: (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images))

Liberal-friendly media outlets have been running obituaries for the Tea Party almost from the moment the grassroots conservative movement began in 2009. Tea Party anger over ObamaCare and corporate bailouts helped fuel a surprise Republican wave in 2010, shocking most pundits, as the House of Representatives shifted firmly into the GOP's control. But then the movement fell short in 2012, and ever since then, much of the media have once again seemed eager to pronounce the Tea Party either dead or irrelevant — missing the larger point, and the larger impact. And the media's Tea Party misfire will surely continue today, now that longtime Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts has emerged victorious over conservative challenger Milton Wolf in Tuesday's GOP primary.

Or take, for instance, this year's Mississippi Senate primary. The Republican incumbent, Thad Cochran, has a long reputation for pork-barrel politics and down-home pandering, neither of which has endeared him to small-government conservatives. The competitive challenge from Chris McDaniel came as a shock to Cochran and his supporters, who believed they could get one more easy ride back to the Senate from the seven-term senator in one of the friendliest states for Republicans. Instead, McDaniel narrowly edged Cochran in the initial vote, and narrowly lost the runoff — although McDaniel is contesting the results. To win the runoff, Cochran had to appeal to an unusual constituency: Democrats.

But in most states where incumbents faced challenges from Tea Party activists, the incumbents have had to defend their conservative credentials. Two key Senate GOP leaders had to fend off challengers with more effort than they have probably expended in several cycles put together. National Republican Senatorial Committee chair John Cornyn defeated a sitting House member, Steve Stockman, in the March primary in Texas, but it wasn't easy; Cornyn got 59 percent of the vote, a decent enough showing, but hardly a ringing endorsement, even after Cornyn vigorously defended his brand of conservatism in the Lone Star State.

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Mitch McConnell in Kentucky found himself in the hot seat, too. The Senate minority leader often runs afoul of Tea Party activists for his efforts to find compromise on issues when the grassroots want confrontation. McConnell won his Senate primary by 25 points over a first-time challenger, whose campaign ended up collapsing under its own weight. But first, Matt Bevin forced McConnell to shift to the right and get more defiant, at least rhetorically speaking.

Most Republican incumbents knew to move to the right well before the primary campaign; Lindsey Graham began laying the groundwork two years ago for his re-election effort, which paid off this spring in an easy win over six challengers. But not everyone got the memo. The biggest surprise came in the primary for Virginia's 7th congressional district, where House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was expected to win easily. Cantor certainly expected it, spending most of his campaign fundraising outside of the district and barely engaging in his own race. Dave Brat, a local college professor with no electoral experience but with plenty of grassroots support, spent less on his whole campaign than Cantor spent on steakhouses — and ended up beating Cantor by double digits.

This dynamic — of conservative challengers, win or lose, forcing longtime incumbents to be more conservative — seems to be lost on the media. This week, both CBS News and The Hill ran Tea Party obituaries. CBS called this week's primaries "the Tea Party's last gasp this year," while The Hill said that the movement's Senate hopes will surely "fade." And in the moment, that might well be true.

But look: The true test of the Tea Party won't be in primary victories this week or this year, but in the impact of the conservative grassroots movement on the Republican Party. We have already seen incumbents who have rarely if ever had to deal with intraparty challengers shift their focus and message in response. The lack of banner wins in 2012 certainly didn't persuade most of these incumbents to dismiss that pressure — in fact, the ones who succeeded most were the ones who prepared soonest and most vigorously.

When the New Left brand of progressivism arose in the 1960s, its candidates didn't win a lot of elections at first either. It took two decades for the pressure of the movement to shift the center of the Democratic Party away from its traditional, blue-collar liberalism. In the late 1980s, the trend worried Democrats enough to form the Democratic Leadership Council to push back and recruit moderates to run for office, the most successful of which was Bill Clinton in 1992. By 2008, his wife blew her opening for the presidential nomination in part by falling short of the progressive credentials of Barack Obama.

The lesson here is not to count primaries in the short run. Look for the way incumbents have to defend their record and wait for the grassroots to produce change organically over the long run.

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