It would be foolish to write the Tea Party’s obituary after this primary cycle, according to Washington Post writer Paul Waldman. Though the Tea Party failed to oust an incumbent senator this election cycle, the movement is still winning and far from fading, he argues.
This week, a majority of primary voters in Tennessee and Kansas did not vote for incumbent Sens. Pat Roberts (R-KS) and Lamar Alexander (R-TN). But because those two states do not have runoffs, Roberts and Alexander won their primary races against Milton Wolf and Joe Carr, respectively. Both challengers had closed the gap considerably in the final weeks of their campaigns.
“I used to think this movement was going to wither and die,” Waldman wrote on Wednesday after Roberts’ win and a day before Alexander’s victory. “Today, though, it’s hard to see its power waning anytime soon. If it ends up winning even when it loses at the polls, there’s no reason why it can’t go on for a long time.”
Since only House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) was ousted this election cycle, Waldman wrote that it is easy for the Beltway elite to conclude that “the Tea Party is waning, beaten back by a Republican establishment determined to rid itself of this meddlesome faction.”
After Alexander defeated Carr, establishment Republicans and the mainstream press hailed Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) for living up to his vow to “crush” Tea Party opponents this election cycle.
“But the truth is that in some ways the movement continues to get stronger,” Waldman wrote. “The Tea Party wins when it wins, and it wins when it loses. Five years after it began and long after many people (myself included) thought it would fade away, it continues to hold the GOP in its grip. For a bunch of nincompoops prancing around in tricorner hats, it’s quite a remarkable achievement.”
Waldman’s observations ring true after Alexander’s win, as well. Alexander is no Tea Partier, but he spent millions making himself sound like one, spending some of those millions on the airwaves asserting he was opposed to amnesty, despite his vote for the Senate’s comprehensive amnesty bill last year. His final ad deceptively proclaimed he “voted to end amnesty” last year and voted against Obama’s border bill last week; neither claim was true.
Waldman notes, for instance, that even when Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS) barely held off Chris McDaniel in the Mississippi runoff, Tea Partiers were convinced that “the only way they can be beaten is through sneakiness and ideological treason.”
“Tea Partiers now look at Mississippi and see only a reason to keep up the fight,” he observed.
In Kansas, Roberts moved to the right; he was one of the first to call for the resignation of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius–to hold off Milton Wolf. Sens. John Cornyn (R-TX), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Mitch McConnell (R-KY) did not take their primary races lightly and schemed for years to fend off challengers from the right. And even though they weren’t hardliners on amnesty, they routinely blasted Obama on issues ranging from Obamacare to campaign finance and moved or stayed on the right on a host of other issues.
Waldman said that if “ordinary Republicans have to become Tea Partiers to beat Tea Partiers (even if only for a while), the movement’s influence is greater, not less,” because making establishment Republicans “afraid enough to move to the right” is “the next best thing.”