Updated at 8:44 a.m. on January 26.
Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., upstaged House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., by delivering her own State of the Union response, courtesy of the Tea Party Express, but that’s merely the latest instance in which the tea party has taken on the establishment—and won.
From the high-profile Senate contests in 2012 to the granular inner workings of state parties, tea party candidates and activists are playing hardball, foreshadowing another volatile year within the Republican Party.
For anyone who thinks that the tea party will disappear, as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., suggested this month, a look at the early political landscape shows that, if anything, it’s poised to play an even bigger role in the next two years.
Two of the most-respected and longest-serving Republican senators are in serious risk of losing their party nominations. One of the best names in conservative politics, at least before losing reelection in 2006, is being trash-talked by the base as he launches his comeback bid. And tea party favorite Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., is poking his nose in Texas—home state of National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn.
And it’s only January.
The most direct threats to the establishment look like they will take place in Indiana and Utah. Sens. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, look ill-prepared to defend themselves against looming tea party threats in the primary.
Tea party groups have organized in Indiana to defeat Lugar, who hasn’t faced a serious challenge in decades. This week they handed his office a petition calling on him to step down to make way for a more conservative candidate.
In a state where GOP Gov. Mitch Daniels has national prominence for his fiscal austerity and GOP Rep. Mike Pence touts an unabashed conservatism, Lugar has trod a different path, being a lone GOP voice defending earmarks, and backing President Obama's major foreign policy initiative, the New START nuclear pact with Russia. His suggestion that the ban on assault weapons should be reinstated in light of the Tucson shootings gives conservatives another weapon to wield against him.
Hatch could be in even more trouble, thanks to Utah’s convention process, where activists can crowd out establishment candidates like him. Just ask former Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah.
And it seems like ancient history when Sen. George Allen, R-Va., was the conservatives’ darling and gearing up for a presidential run. Now, as he launches a 2012 comeback bid, he is getting tweaked by past allies. Erick Erickson of RedState.com said that Allen “is out of step with most of the grassroots activists engaged in Republican primaries.”
Allen, facing primary challenges from tea partier Jamie Radtke and Prince William County Supervisor Corey Stewart, is still the clear front-runner, but the activists’ dissatisfaction with him speaks volumes about how much GOP politics has changed in the past five years.
Meanwhile, the old skirmishes between Cornyn and DeMint, which bubbled to the surface in 2010, threaten to reemerge. DeMint is touting conservative underdogs Ted Cruz and Michael Williams for the seat of retiring GOP Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. A peeved Cornyn asked: “Is he from Texas?”
More telling signs from the state party level: Jack Kimball, Tom Morrissey, and Kirby Wilbur, all new state GOP chairmen running on tea party platforms, were elected last weekend in New Hampshire, Arizona, and Washington state.
In New Hampshire, the contrast between Kimball and outgoing Chairman John Sununu couldn’t be more striking. Sununu shepherded the state party to significant successes—picking up two House seats, holding a Senate seat, and gaining control of both chambers of the Legislature—by encouraging unity and tamping down intraparty ideological fights.
Sununu, the former governor and chief of staff to President George H.W. Bush, defines the establishment. Kimball, who has expressed a willingness to entertain ideological litmus tests, could prove unpredictable in a critical state for Republicans in choosing their presidential standard-bearer.
In Arizona, the election of Morrissey, a tea party activist, signaled the state GOP’s continuing migration away from the conservative establishment to the grassroots. Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords has been one beneficiary of the GOP’s unstinting conservatism, winning close contests in 2006 and 2010 thanks to the GOP’s nominating candidates too far to the right to win a general election.
If Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., retires, the GOP divide could offer Democrats an opening.
The election of Wilbur, a talk-show host who handily ousted Washington state party Chairman Luke Esser, could have ramifications for the Republican seeking the state’s top job, Attorney General Rob McKenna. McKenna is the GOP's best hope to win the governorship for the first time in 25 years, but was overrun by the party's conservative activists in helping Esser win another term.
McKenna, a moderate from Seattle’s suburbs, might be the most electable nominee, but he can’t afford a divided party in this Democratic state. And if Wilbur focuses more on sound bites instead of doing the unsexy job of identifying prospective Republican voters for the upcoming elections, it makes it easier for Democrats to hold onto the governorship.
Make no mistake—the impact of the tea party was a net positive for Republicans in 2010, infusing the party with badly needed energy. But the movement lacked pragmatism that likely cost the party several high-profile Senate races, including the seat of the Senate majority leader.
Already, the list of tea party initiatives is impressive: demanding Lugar’s retirement, pushing Ryan out of the State of the Union spotlight, downplaying Allen's comeback, taking on Cornyn in his home state, and winning important state chairmanships. The movement has proven its influence, but whether it can channel that influence to forge a governing GOP majority and prepare for a presidential campaign is less certain.