Today's Wall Street Journal has a number of articles examining the impact of the Tea Party movement and its potential effect on several important upcoming primaries in Florida and Virginia, among other places, not to mention the November mid-term elections.
One front page article features a quote from my former law school pal Patrick Hughes, who ran a distant second to Congressman Mark Kirk in the U.S. Senate GOP primary here in Illinois:
"The problem with the tea-party movement is it has inspired too many candidates," says Patrick Hughes, a candidate with tea-party backing who was trounced by Rep. Mark Kirk in the crowded Illinois Republican Senate primary. "The movement will fail if it can't coalesce behind candidates who can win."
Leaving aside whether it's better to have your name mentioned in the WSJ, even if it refers to you as getting "trounced" (ouch), or not at all, Pat's analysis of the tea party "problem" misses the mark, at least as it played out here in Illinois, which might give some insight into the tea party's effect on other races elsewhere.
First, if we define the tea party "problem" as the fact that so far, it has been ineffective in electing a candidate to any major race that I know of (with the possible exception of Joe Walsh in Illinois' 8th Congressional District, and we can argue about Scott Brown, but we'll get to them in a minute), the biggest reason for that is that as an 'anti-establishment' movement, many people who have been recently attracted to the movement seem to eschew traditional politics and governmental intrusion on their lives, and have little experience in effecting political change. From what I can tell, many of these folks have never been heavily involved in politics at all before, aside from voting. If your primary motivation in getting involved in politics is to be left alone, likely once your anger dies down, you will go back to your normal life, which doesn't include a lot of attention or energy (or money) devoted to politics.
In general, that's the problem with 'reactionary' movements, the enthusiasm for which tends to trail off as people get over their umbrage at whatever motivated them in the first place. That's also why so-called "community organizers" (which our President spent some time as) actually have a job -- they basically need to convince people who didn't realize there was a problem (or weren't motivated enough to do anything about it) go out and mobilize for some kind of action.
The second issue is that, contrary to Pat's assertion, the tea party movement seems to have actually "inspired" few candidates. This was certainly the case in the U.S. Senate GOP primary. Of the many candidates in the crowded field, none of them originally announced themselves as the "tea party candidate" -- indeed, retired downstate Judge Donald Lowery announced his candidacy as a Republican even before GOP favorite Congressman Mark Kirk had announced, and before the tea party movement had caught much attention. Pat Hughes himself had originally branded his campaign as one of "mainstream Republican values" (and an anti-Mark Kirk) and came to embrace tea partiers only as a source of support, rather than as a fundamental affiliation of some kind. Going beyond Illinois and looking at races such as the Florida U.S. Senate GOP primary, Florida Governor Charlie Crist, the establishment candidate, is struggling with a surprisingly strong challenge from the more conservative Marco Rubio, but Rubio did not start out as a tea party candidate either. Among other strong Rubio supporters is conservative Senator Jim DeMint, who has been busy building up his own brand, with his Senate Conservatives Fund. (Interestingly, Hughes had desperately sought the endorsement of DeMint, but was unsuccessful due to Hughes' failure to present a viable conservative alternative to the more moderate Mark Kirk).
Rather than being "inspired," as Pat puts it, it seems that many candidates are simply trying to take advantage of the tea party movement as a (for now) motivated, excited base of support, while still trying to run under the mantle of the Republican party to also tap into the benefits of an established political party. Even candidates like Joe Walsh, in IL-8, who called himself a "tea party conservative first and a Republican second," still ran as a Republican and now, as the nominee, is reaching out to and embracing traditional establishment Republican support (and money). And while Scott Brown was claimed by the tea party as a major victory, the notion that the tea party movement actually was responsible for his victory is questionable at best, and now that Brown has become more correctly understood as a very moderate politician, willing to reach across the aisle when appropriate, many under-informed tea partiers improperly seem to think they were misled.
So, this brings us to the real issue here, which is that tea party movement can't seem to decide if it wants to be a traditional third party alternative to the GOP, which many of the tea party activists believe has left behind traditional conservative values, or if it simply wants to be an influential, but decentralized, political bloc, with nominal leaders like Sarah Palin channelling its energy and votes in a very personal, and largely race-by-race, manner. It's worth noting that even candidates like Rubio are still vying for the GOP nomination, and there seems to be very little support nationally for making the tea party a viable third-party alternative to the GOP. But the potential to split the Republican vote in many elections should have everyone worried. It's already happening in places like Ohio.
All of that means that if the Republican party wants to be successful this November, it is going to have to find a way to maintain its identity, while still attracting and energizing those who have embraced the tea party movement. As the WSJ points out, concerned Democrats are looking at the potential party division represented by the tea partiers, and will work overtime to exploit it:
Handicappers are predicting heavy Democratic losses in November. Democrats hope the tea-party surge will soften that blow by diluting Republican campaign coffers and pulling mainstream conservatives to the right, imperiling their chances in the general election.
"This is great news for us," says Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The DCCC has launched a Web site to highlight divisions in the GOP primaries.
Anything that the DCCC sees as a good thing ought to scare the bejeebers out of the GOP, so I am hopeful we can all figure out a way to leverage the energy and motivation of tea partiers in such a way that it adds to the resurgence of the GOP, and not torpedo it.