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Tea Party Challengers Crushed in Alabama Primaries

Donald Trump posted one of his biggest wins on Super Tuesday in Alabama, winning the state by more than 20 points. His campaign, fueled by animosity towards the political establishment in Washington, however, provided no lift to two high-profile challengers to Republican incumbents.

Both candidates, despite signficant backing from Tea Party groups, were crushed by their establishment-backed opponents. Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, who has been in the Senate for almost 30 years, won 64 percent of the vote against challenger John McConnell and three other opponents. If Shelby had been held to under 50% of the vote, the race would have been pushed to a run-off. Despite the crowded field, Shelby easily cleared that hurdle.

In Alabama’s 2nd Congressional District, Rep. Martha Roby fended off a challenge from Tea Party heroine Becky Gerritson and one other challenger. Roby won 67 percent of the vote, far above the threshold needed to avoid a runoff.

Gerritson, who founded the Wetumpka Tea Party, received national attention when she testified before Congress after her organization was targeted by the IRS. She racked up high-profile endorsements from Phyllis Schafely, Herman Cain, Allen West, Citizens United, Madison Project, and Tea Party Patriots Citizen Fund.

Rep. Roby received strong backing from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and many other Washington-based interests.

McConnell, a former Captain in the U.S. Marines, was endorsed by Citizens United and several Tea Party organizations. The national Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund, however, broke ranks with other conservative groups and endorsed Sen. Shelby.

Sen. Jeff Sessions endorsed both Sen. Shelby and Rep. Martha Roby. Sessions, of course, also endorsed Donald Trump, putting the Senator’s firm stamp on the state’s politics.

It is obviously difficult to beat incumbents in any environment. The electorate that delivered the state to Trump by a landslide, however, seems to have been created to challenge any incumbent.

According to exit polls, 42 percent of Republican voters on Tuesday are “angry” with the federal government. Another 42 percent are simply “dissatisfied” with the government.

Amazingly, though, a solid majority of Republicans, 52 percent, say they feel “betrayed” by the Republican party and its leaders. By an overwhelming majority, 68 percent, Republicans said they wanted a “political outsider” as their candidate for President.

This seems an electorate tailor-made for a challenger, especially when the immediate goal isn’t to necessarily win outright, but to hold the incumbent to less than 50 percent. The challengers’s failures present three possibilities:

  1. Sen. Jeff Sessions is the dean of Republican politics in Alabama. All of his endorsed candidates won big on Tuesday;
  2. Donald Trump is a singular candidate, without any real coattails. Voters are endorsing him personally, rather than a set of positions or policies; and,
  3. The national grass roots movement against government overspending that gave rise to the Tea Party movement has evolved into more of a nativist, populist movement. The issues that animate voters to support Trump don’t really translate to the Tea Party candidates of recent elections.

The results, however, also suggest that the animous building towards Washington is a little bit schizophrenic. It is simply hard to square a circle where voters back a candidate to clean house in Washington but simultaneously vote to repopulate Washington with the very same politicians.

Representative democracy is very confusing sometimes.

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