The Tea Party Has Already Won

Conservative challengers may lose every Republican primary in 2014. Here’s why it doesn’t really matter.

A crowd gathers at the World War Two Memorial to support a rally centered around reopening national memorials closed by the government shutdown, supported by military veterans, Tea Party activists and Republicans, on October 13, 2013.
National Journal
Beth Reinhard
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Beth Reinhard
Dec. 11, 2013, midnight

Sev­en tea party chal­lengers are run­ning against Re­pub­lic­an in­cum­bents in next year’s Sen­ate primar­ies, and it’s en­tirely pos­sible that every last one of them will lose.

But it doesn’t really mat­ter: The tea party has already won.

Though the move­ment’s can­did­ates are un­der­dogs in most of the 2014 con­tests against the Re­pub­lic­an es­tab­lish­ment, the mere fear of con­ser­vat­ive chal­lengers has the grass­roots chalk­ing up vic­tory after vic­tory on Cap­it­ol Hill.

The tea party shut down the gov­ern­ment over Obama­care, put im­mig­ra­tion re­form on life sup­port, and is hold­ing the farm bill host­age over food stamps. Hard-liners long ago tor­pedoed hopes of a “grand bar­gain” over the budget and debt lim­it. And in a sign that budget com­prom­ise with Demo­crats con­tin­ues to be ver­boten, con­ser­vat­ive groups from Her­it­age Ac­tion to Freedom­Works were re­ject­ing a deal between Demo­crat­ic Sen. Patty Mur­ray and Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Paul Ry­an Tues­day — be­fore it was even an­nounced.

So even if Re­pub­lic­ans fa­cing primary chal­lengers from the right are not in real danger, their rivals will keep bring­ing the heat, scram­bling the po­ten­tial for deals by a Con­gress already mak­ing his­tory for do­ing so little.

“The tea party has racked up im­port­ant vic­tor­ies elect­or­ally but also ideo­lo­gic­ally, and that pres­sure on es­tab­lish­ment Re­pub­lic­ans will con­tin­ue,” said James Hart­man, a Louisi­ana-based polit­ic­al con­sult­ant ad­vising tea party-backed con­gres­sion­al can­did­ate Rob Maness. “The com­prom­ises be­ing blocked are ab­so­lutely fa­vor­able in terms of pub­lic policy. No, we don’t want tax in­creases. No, we don’t want Obama­care.”

The battle for the heart and soul of the Re­pub­lic­an Party ex­pan­ded in the past week to in­clude chal­lenges against Mis­sis­sippi Sen. Thad Co­chran and Texas Sen. John Cornyn, bring­ing the total of GOP sen­at­ors fa­cing primary op­pon­ents to sev­en. All of the in­cum­bents are favored to beat their op­pon­ents. But that doesn’t mean they’re free to cut any deals across the aisle; do­ing so would be risky in a highly po­lar­ized polit­ic­al cli­mate that sees com­prom­ise as be­tray­al.

“Mem­bers of Con­gress are risk averse, and if they can avoid get­ting at­ten­tion from the bul­lies, they will,” said Re­pub­lic­an con­sult­ant John Fee­hery, a former Cap­it­ol Hill staffer.

Former Min­nesota Sen. Norm Cole­man, chair­man of the board of the pro-im­mig­ra­tion re­form Amer­ica Ac­tion Net­work, says he doesn’t see any Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­ors in jeop­ardy. But he ac­know­ledged that what he called the “fringe of the tea party” will make it ex­tremely dif­fi­cult to reach agree­ments on a path­way to cit­izen­ship and oth­er is­sues.

“Ele­ments with­in the tea party are def­in­itely push­ing Re­pub­lic­ans to the right really hard and push­ing a pur­ist ap­proach,” he said. “If folks are say­ing ‘don’t com­prom­ise,’ that ob­vi­ously makes it harder to find com­mon ground.”

Some of the Re­pub­lic­an in­sur­gents, in­clud­ing House can­did­ate Bry­an Smith in Idaho and Sen­ate can­did­ates Chris McDaniel in Mis­sis­sippi and Matt Bev­in in Ken­tucky, were already call­ing on mem­bers to re­ject a budget deal to keep the gov­ern­ment open after Jan. 15 — be­fore the agree­ment was fi­nal­ized. Their ob­jec­tion is that it would elim­in­ate some of the spend­ing cuts that were man­dat­ory un­der the so-called se­quester.

“The Ry­an-Mur­ray deal is a com­plete ab­dic­a­tion of Wash­ing­ton’s gov­ern­ing re­spons­ib­il­ity,” said McDaniel, who an­nounced his chal­lenge to Co­chran last week. This kind of in­cen­di­ary rhet­or­ic makes it harder for mem­bers to reach even a short-term agree­ment.

Anti-tax cru­sader Grover Nor­quist called the se­quester “the great ac­com­plish­ment of the tea party move­ment” on Twit­ter — a sign, he said, that the tea party has suc­ceeded in chan­ging the cul­ture in Wash­ing­ton and bey­ond.

“Ear­marks were pre­vi­ously viewed as a sign of vir­il­ity and power,” he ad­ded in an email. “They are now viewed as akin to shoplift­ing. That cul­tur­al shift in the GOP caucus is en­dur­ing.”

While con­ser­vat­ive rivals will keep Re­pub­lic­an in­cum­bents on their heels, Bri­an Walsh, a former spokes­man for the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Sen­at­ori­al Com­mit­tee, said the primar­ies will ul­ti­mately strengthen the party.

“I think the les­son every­one drew the last two cycles is that Re­pub­lic­an in­cum­bents can’t take any­thing for gran­ted,” he said. “To the ex­tent that they win those primar­ies and fend off those at­tacks, the stronger the party will be in the fu­ture.”

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