Tonight, the Tea Party is going to lose some elections. Its Senate candidates in Kentucky and Georgia are going to lose—and lose really, really badly in at least in Kentucky. The theme of the night on cable (and for the balance of the week really) will be the death of the Tea Party. Everybody’s waiting with a safety net, as Elvis Costello (nearly) sang, but I say don’t bury them ’cuz they’re not dead yet.
Why? Because while 2014 is, to be sure, going to go down as a bad Tea Party year in electoral terms, we certainly can’t yet say the same of 2016—a much more important year, i.e. presidential. In fact, as of today, what we can say about 2016, speculative as it may be, is that the tea party is if anything in the driver’s seat. The guy we’ve all taken to calling the GOP front-runner, Rand Paul, is a Tea Party guy. That simple fact alone hardly makes for anything I’d call dead.
Beyond Paul, numerous potential candidates are backed by the Tea Party or in some sense have that aura about them. Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Scott Walker—even Mike Huckabee, if he casts his lure [good] into the waters, will be fishing in the Tea Party pond for votes. Yes, there’ll be a Chris Christie or a Jeb Bush to represent the establishment. But if most of the candidates are flat-out Tea Party people or at least Tea Party-friendly creatures, that means to me that the pull of gravity in that primary season is still going to be pretty far to the right, and driven to some decent extent by Tea Party priorities. And let’s face it: If the party does nominate Paul, the Tea Party will have won the biggest prize in intra-party politics: determining the presidential nominee. So 2016 could well be a huge Tea Party year.
But let’s circle back to this year. While it’s true that the majority of Tea Party candidates are losing, something else has been going on more under the radar, smartly picked up on recently by Jamie Fuller of The Washington Post. A lot of Republican candidates are trying to finesse the establishment-Tea Party Maginot Line and be both things to all people. She writes, I believe accurately, that the clear goal of many candidates is “staying comfortable with the tea party while networking with the establishment on the side.” This certainly describes North Carolina’s Thom Tillis. He beat an explicitly Tea Party-backed challenger, but Tillis is still deeply reactionary (eliminate the minimum wage entirely, he once suggested!), he backed the Cruz-led government shutdown, and he is distinguishable ideologically from tea party candidates only in that he’s not quite as wacko as the tea party guy was.
In other words: In one important sense, the tea party has won. In fact, one Tea Party candidate did win a GOP Senate primary this year, Ben Sasse in Nebraska, who campaigned with Cruz, Sarah Palin, and Mike Lee. But the larger point is that when people like Thom Tillis are mainstream Republicans, the Tea Party’s mission is basically accomplished.
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