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Magazine / Need to Know: Politics

Party’s Over

The tea party’s antiestablishment posture helped propel it to power. That same posture will cost the movement some congressional seats.

Out in the cold: Rep. Jeffrey Landry, R-La.(Alex Wong/Getty Images)

photo of Cameron Joseph
April 22, 2011

Rep. Jeffrey Landry, R-La., a tea party favorite, beat a former state House speaker in the primary last year en route to winning his seat in Congress. Now, state legislators in the party establishment have exacted their revenge: When it came time to eliminate one of Louisiana’s congressional seats—required under this year’s reapportionment—they picked Landry’s. And they drew the map to fracture his base among multiple districts, ensuring that veteran Rep. Charles Boustany, R-La., would have an edge should Landry make good on his threat to challenge him in a primary. “Landry did about as bad as he can do” in the new map, John Maginnis, a state politics expert and the editor of LaPolitics Weekly, said. “He lost almost everything but his home.”

Landry’s predicament illustrates a larger problem for many of the tea party’s favorite lawmakers. They are popular with the movement because they’re outsiders without strong connections to the state’s political kingmakers. But those kingmakers are the ones who draw the congressional boundaries in most states.

Tea party groups have failed to even organize on the issue in some states. In others, they have geared up for the fight only to realize that they are behind the curve. “Tea party groups haven’t been that engaged on this in general,” said Jack Wilhite, a member of the northern Indiana group Kosciusko County Silent No More. “It doesn’t seem important until … it arrives; and when it does, you have to get up to speed really quick on it—at which point it might be too late.” The upshot is that tea party-affiliated House members are in trouble across the country—even in states that aren’t losing seats and in those where the GOP controls the redistricting process.

 
The kingmakers draw congressional boundaries in most states.

In some cases, such as in Louisiana, Republicans have to eat their own because the state is losing a district. Although tea party groups were very engaged in Louisiana, meeting for half a day with Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, they failed to protect Landry. Bob Reid, the spokesman for the Tea Party of Louisiana, said that what happened to Landry was not “fair at all” but that the group did its best to counteract pressure from Washington to split communities to make five of the state’s six seats strongly Republican. “This was dictated to us from the federal level,” Reid said. “They’re setting the rules, not us, and that’s wrong.”

In Ohio, which is losing two districts, Reps. Jean Schmidt and Bill Johnson—both tea party Republicans—are potential targets. One of the two seats that New York is slated to lose will belong to a Republican. Tea party-connected Reps. Ann Marie Buerkle and Nan Hayworth are two contenders for elimination. Ohio is just beginning to work on its maps, and New York is unlikely to go before next year, but local Republicans in both states suggest that protecting the tea party lawmakers isn’t their first priority.

Even in states where Republicans don’t have to eliminate districts, some members popular with tea party groups are at a disadvantage. That’s because mapmakers can cannibalize their districts to shore up members with more seniority and closer ties to the party establishment—or to destabilize nearby Democratic districts. Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., a tea party leader whose district was carried by President Obama and doesn’t have much surrounding Republican territory, could find himself in this predicament. Because the state is adding two districts, the existing ones need to shrink. The most economical way for Republicans to shore up West would be to create another Democratic district in the area, something they are extremely loath to do.

In Texas, Republicans are unlikely to protect freshman Rep. Blake Farenthold, who won in a heavily Latino district. Many in the party establishment see his election as a fluke—the district he won has been held by a Democrat since its creation in 1982. Helping Farenthold would mean making his district less Latino, which would create major headaches for Republicans elsewhere because the party leaders would have to create another majority-Latino seat to comply with the Voting Rights Act.

In Indiana, to weaken Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly in the north, Republicans have reconfigured the district of next-door Republican Marlin Stutzman, another tea party favorite. Stutzman’s district will still be heavily Republican, but part of his political base is now in Donnelly’s district. “I don’t think there’s anyone in the Indiana tea party who has gotten past rallying on the steps of the statehouse and walked inside the doors,” said Ed Feigenbaum, the editor of Indiana Legislative Insight. “They did not have ties with incumbents and weren’t afforded a seat at the table [to discuss the maps]. They are outsiders.”

In other states, such as Illinois, Maryland, and West Virginia, Democrats control the redistricting process, putting all types of Republicans in trouble. Arkansas has already signed into a law a map that weakens Rep. Rick Crawford, a member with tea party ties, and the GOP expects an all-out bloodbath in Illinois.

Tea party activists are not naive about the importance of redistricting, Mark Meckler of the Tea Party Patriots contends. “They know this is a critical fight for the tea party groups and the movement,” he says. But getting in the game has proven a difficult challenge for a movement defined by its outsider status and its preference for public protests over backroom deals. In this case, the last place anyone wants to be is on the outside, but that’s where many tea party favorites may soon wind up.

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