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Revenge Of The Right

Contrary to the charge that the tea party is extreme, most of the movement's candidates are squarely in line with the mood of the electorate.

photo of Josh Kraushaar
October 19, 2010

One of the dominant myths of this election season is that Republicans have nominated too-extreme tea party candidates who are not electable in general elections, making it difficult for them to maximize their gains. It’s been easy for cable talk show hosts to make that argument, given the high-profile, seriously-flawed candidacies of Christine O’Donnell and Carl Paladino, among others.

But in reality, the clear majority of conservative and tea party nominees have proven themselves to be squarely in line with the electorate’s mood and are well-positioned to usher in one of the most conservative Congresses since 1994.

Despite the Democratic portrayal of the tea party as extreme, Americans have soured over the increased scope of government under President Obama and the Democratic Congress – and are looking for a course correction. A newly-released ABC News/Yahoo poll shows that 55 percent of Americans think the tea party can “effectively bring about major changes in the way the government operates.” It’s a far cry from the official Democratic Party argument that the tea party represents the American fringe.


Republican candidates who have openly advocated for conservative principles are, by and large, outperforming GOP colleagues who have run to the center.  Businessman Ron Johnson, who has directly taken on Sen. Russell Feingold’s economic liberalism, is over the 50 percent mark in most public polling. That’s all the more impressive, given that Feingold held strong personal approval ratings back home and represents a Democratic-leaning state in Wisconsin.  

In Pennsylvania, former congressman Pat Toomey, an outspoken fiscal conservative who headed the anti-tax Club for Growth before running for the Senate, has consistently led against Democrat Joe Sestak, and is the clear favorite to win Arlen Specter’s seat.  

Marco Rubio’s success in the Florida Senate race has been so sweeping that it’s easy to forget that the New York Times Magazine tagged him as the potential “First Senator From The Tea Party” in a January cover story.

Even in California, Carly Fiorina is running a close race against Sen. Barbara Boxer despite advocating positions well to the right of the California electorate – opposing abortion rights, gun control regulations, and cherished environmental regulations. It’s simply that kind of year.

All this should put to rest the notion that somehow conservative Republican nominees are making it tougher for the party to hold onto contested Senate and House seats. In fact, the opposite is true.

Moderate Republican candidates are dramatically underachieving in several of the key races where they should hold a comfortable advantage.

In Illinois, where GOP Rep. Mark Kirk’s centrist voting record made him the Republican Senate recruit du jour of this cycle, has struggled to pull ahead of Democrat Alexi Giannoulias, despite the Democrat’s significant baggage.

Former GOP Rep. Charlie Bass of New Hampshire, who headed the centrist Republican Main Street Partnership, is one of the few Republicans to trail a Democrat in a contested open seat House race, with a new UNH poll showing him trailing liberal activist Ann McLane Kuster, 43-36 percent. This in a state where Kelly Ayotte (R) is comfortably leading Paul Hodes in the Senate race running on a tea party message, and where Frank Guinta (R) holds a sizable lead over Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D) in the neighboring 1st District, in the same UNH poll.

While moderation is not looking like a political virtue for Republicans these days, some of the moderates’ struggles have also been compounded by their extensive experience in Washington. I was struck by how often Kirk relied on Beltway jargon during his “Meet the Press” debate this month with Giannoulias – a sign of his policy chops, but stylistically, something that reminds voters of all the time Kirk has spent in Washington.  

Kuster, in her race against Bass, has tagged the ex-congressman as a Washington insider who was responsible for causing the economic mess in the first place. Those charges have also hurt a handful of more-conservative candidates, including ex-Rep. Tim Walberg in Michigan and former House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, running for Senate in Missouri. Walberg is in a tough fight against Rep. Mark Schauer (D-Mich.), even though the district favors Republicans, and Blunt’s past leadership role has made him uniquely vulnerable to criticism, although he’s favored to win.

But if experience in D.C. hurts the handful of Republicans facing competitive races, it’s a trait that’s been absolutely toxic to many Democratic members on the stump. 

Look no further than Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s disastrous debate performance last week against Sharron Angle. Reid’s rhetoric may have been acceptable on the Senate floor, but it probably sounded like he was speaking a different language to many Nevada voters. 

That tendency to speak in congressional jargon makes it all the more difficult for many other veteran Democratic members of Congress to communicate to their constituents, a problem made worse when they have to defend unpopular policies and provisions in legislation they voted for.

That disconnect between the public anger at congressional policies and the media reaction can be striking. I was watching Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC show Monday night, when she began by mocking the notion that concern about deficits and government spending was fueling a Republican surge.

I don’t know what election she’s been following over the last year, but when you have ardently conservative/libertarian Republican Senate challengers all across the country -- from Rand Paul to Sharron Angle to Ron Johnson -- preaching the gospel of limited government, and leading in polls, there’s something going on.  

Gallup survey this month showed that a record 54 percent of the likely midterm electorate identified themselves as conservatives – 14 points higher than in 1994 -- a number reflecting the high level of enthusiasm among Republicans, tea party activists and disaffected independents.

Even Boxer, one of the most liberal members of the Senate, felt the need to tout her tax-cutting bona fides on CNN last week, telling Wolf Blitzer she voted for “over $2 trillion” in tax cuts on the stimulus – a sum that is greater than the entire stimulus itself. She quickly backtracked, after Blitzer expressed amazement at her math.

A sign of the times: When Boxer is talking up tax cuts and Feingold is trailing in the polls with little sign of reinforcements from the DSCC ($0 spent for ads in Wisconsin), voters are sending a clear message that extremism is in the eye of the beholder.

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