The Tea Party Movement appeared to have become a major force in American politics in the 2010 mid-term elections, sweeping 87 new Republicans into the lower house, biting into the Democrats' lead in the senate, and monstering mainstream Republicans into pushing the party further to the right.
Just two years later, the results are starkly different, with Tea Party-aligned candidates causing considerable embarrassment, dragging down the Republican vote and costing it eminently winnable Senate seats — and perhaps even the presidency.
The most epic failure was in Indiana, where six-term Senator Richard Lugar, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and an internationally respected expert on nuclear disarmament, lost the Republican primary election in May. The successful challenger, Richard Mourdock, mounted a well financed campaign with support from the Tea Party movement, the National Rifle Association and such arch-conservative lobby groups as the Club for Growth, Red State and FreedomWorks. Mourdock also came armed with endorsements from Tea Party favourites Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann.
Lugar had been enormously popular with voters in general elections, winning at least two-thirds of the vote in 1988, 1994 and 2000. In 2006, the Democrats didn’t stand a candidate against him, with Lugar recording 87% of the vote against his Libertarian challenger.
Although Lugar received a 77% lifetime conservative rating from the American Conservative Union — and 100% in more recent years — he was nevertheless painted as too liberal and accommodating. Among other sins, he had voted to confirm Obama’s two Supreme Court nominees, supported the auto industry bailout and indicated sympathy for immigration law reform.
In contrast, Mourdock argued that “the time for being collegial is past, it’s time for confrontation”. He subsequently became infamous for his debate comment that “even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen”. Although Mitt Romney easily won Indiana with more than 54% of the vote, Mourdock registered only 44% (barely half Lugar’s last tally) in losing a very safe Republican Senate seat to Democrat Joe Donnelly.
This phenomenon was repeated in other critical seats, with conservative voters having to split their votes to support Romney for president, but shun the Tea Party radicals on the lower part of the ticket.
In Missouri, Tea Party Republican Todd Aikin — also highly controversial for his “legitimate rape” remarks — was soundly beaten by Senator Claire McCaskill, who retained her seat despite struggling badly in earlier polls. Mitt Romney won Missouri with about 54% of the vote, but only 39% could stomach Aikin.
In North Dakota, another staunchly Republican state carried by Romney with nearly 59% of the vote, Tea Party Republican Rick Berg lost to Democrat Heidi Heitkamp. As a state legislator in 2007, Berg co-sponsored a bill to make it a serious felony to get an abortion, even for victims of rape or incest. However, it was a bigger source of controversy during the campaign that he persisted in referring to Heitkamp as “Heidi-Ho” and repeatedly mentioned that she is “childless”. Similarly, in the Florida and Ohio Senate races, Tea Party Republicans fell significantly below Romney’s tally in losing to incumbent Democrats in states that the GOP thought it could win.
The impact of the Tea Party was felt in other Republican losses as well, if less directly. In Maine, moderate three-term Republican Senator Olympia Snowe suddenly announced her retirement, explaining that politics had become too divisive and her party too right-wing. Snowe got nearly 75% of the vote in 2006, and would likely have done so again. However, the vote of her successor as Republican candidate fell to 31%, with former Governor Angus King enticed into the race as a liberal independent when Snowe withdrew. King is certain to vote with the Democrats in the Senate.
In Massachusetts, Scott Brown shocked the Democratic Party to its core by winning the seat made vacant in 2009 by the death of Senator Teddy Kennedy. This heralded the arrival of the Tea Party as a major force and foreshadowed the major gains to come in 2010. In office, and then seeking re-election in a liberal state, Brown has taken a more moderate stance than most fellow Tea Partiers. Brown exceeded Romney’s vote tally in Massachusetts by 8%, but Elizabeth Warren recaptured the seat for the Democrats.
In the Wisconsin Senate race, Democratic Rep Tammy Baldwin — a strong liberal and the first openly gay candidate from a major party — defeated Tommy Thompson, a former Governor and Secretary of Health and Human Services under President George W Bush. A mainstream Republican, Thompson faced a bruising primary battle from Tea Party-supported challengers, depleting his campaign of critical funds and energy.
Likewise, a number of Tea Party stalwarts in the House of Representative lost or suffered reduced margins of victory. Congressional Tea Party Caucus founder and erstwhile presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann squeaked back into office in Wisconsin after a tough challenge from businessman Jim Graves, and she will surely face another serious challenge in 2014 now that she is regarded as vulnerable.
Illinois Rep Joe Walsh is a Tea Party warrior and self-described “Congressional Enemy No 1”, who was elected in the 2010 tidal wave. He is perhaps most famous for shouting “Quit lying!” during President Obama’s address on the debt ceiling to a joint sitting of Congress. Walsh’s recent campaign was heavily funded by FreedomWorks and other Tea Party-aligned groups, but he nevertheless was beaten by nearly ten points by Democrat Tammy Duckworth, a former Black Hawk helicopter pilot who lost both legs to a rocket attack in Iraq.
Allen West — a very high profile Tea Party standard bearer, and a rare African-American in this movement — narrowly lost to a political newcomer in Florida, despite leading in the pre-election polls.
History is not likely to be on the Tea Party’s side. If “demography is destiny”, as Auguste Comte once said, the American electorate is rapidly moving away from the Tea Party, which is heavily comprised of ageing white men without college degrees. Obama got the votes of only 40% of this demographic, but he was able to win comfortably because he received 55% of the vote from women, more than 60% of young voters, more than 90% of Black voters, and more than 70% of Latino and Jewish voters — and the proportion of Blacks, Asians and Latinos is steadily growing.
The Tea Party movement remains unrepentant, accepting no blame for the disappointing election results. Indeed, according to the TeaParty.org website, the root of the problem was that Romney and the Republicans played it too safe, were not confrontational enough, and, in conjunction with a tame and co-opted media, refused to highlight President Obama’s “record of crimes, fraud and treachery”.
Americans have made plain their distaste for the hyper-partisanship and gridlock in Washington, while so many pressing issues of national and international importance fail to be addressed. The Tea Party Movement has pitched the Republican Party to the extreme right while there is a long history of Americans preferring their politicians to govern from the centre. Apart from pursuing all-or-nothing policies verging on nihilism, and selecting candidates that even many Republican voters can’t support, the Tea Partiers have seriously harmed the Republican movement by discouraging potentially excellent, moderate candidates from standing, because they are wary of the expense and the exposure to attacks from the right during the primary campaign process.
As the one-time moderate Republican Mitt Romney recently learned to his cost, it is difficult to credibly return to the middle after so much time has been spent tacking sharply to the right.