Right-wing Tea Party activists might well reshape the US Congress – but they have already routed the Republican establishment
When angry right-wing American voters started taking to the streets to protest against the Obama administration’s policies, leading Republicans were ecstatic. In the group of protesters who became known as the Tea Party, they saw a grassroots movement they could ride back to power. Now, with the midterm elections approaching, Tea Partiers may indeed change the balance of power in Washington — but a lot of establishment Republicans will be joining their Democratic counterparts in the unemployment queue.
This is an odd turn for a political phenomenon that was widely assumed by friend and foe alike to be orchestrated by Republican national headquarters and the right-leaning Fox News network. ‘The Republican party directs a lot of what the Tea Party does, but not everybody in the Tea Party takes direction from the Republican party,’ is how the Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, put it. ‘And so there was a lot of, shall we say, Astroturf.’
‘Astroturf’, in a political context, means fake grassroots: a top-down movement that is made to look like a spontaneous citizen uprising. In truth, the Tea Party movement contains both Astroturf and the real thing. It has been helped by well-heeled metropolitan conservative institutions, but it is dependent on ordinary people, many of whom have never been involved in politics before. It is also a mixture of Sarah Palin-adoring Republican partisans and Ron Paul-admiring antiwar libertarians who disliked George W. Bush as much as Barack Obama.
At first, it wasn’t clear if this coalition would have legs, politically. The conventional wisdom is that left-wingers attend protests but conservatives don’t because they have jobs. So when large numbers of people on the right began to show up at rallies denouncing Obama’s $787 billion stimulus package or the $700 billion bipartisan bank bailout, that was something new. Would it go beyond wig-wearing imitations of America’s original tax revolt, the Boston Tea Party, and angry signs? It was anybody’s guess.
The Tea Party’s first triumph at the ballots came in January, when right-wing activists helped elect Scott Brown, a not terribly conservative Republican, to the Senate seat in the liberal state of Massachusetts left vacant by the death of Ted Kennedy. This remarkable result set GOP hearts aflutter. Party bosses envisioned a painless path back to the majority. The National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), the body that helps fund Republican candidates for the Senate, began picking out new senators the way interior decorators choose new curtains.
Unfortunately for Republican leaders, the Tea Partiers frequently found the committee’s choices unacceptable. The mob turned against the ‘Republican establishment’ with the same ferocity it had previously shown against the Democrats. They boasted that they would give ‘not one dime’ to the NRSC or the Republican National Committee. Support from the party’s national committees was considered in and of itself evidence of a candidate’s incipient liberalism.
Sometimes there was good reason for this. Senator John Cornyn, the Texas Republican who chairs the NRSC, is himself a conservative, but he nevertheless calculated that the best way for the party to regain Senate seats would be to back moderates in all the competitive races. This seemed like the right thing to do at the time: Cornyn’s senatorial recruit in Florida was the state’s governor, Charlie Crist, who the polls showed clobbering the Democrats — and his conservative primary opponent — by a wide margin. After his NRSC endorsement, Crist’s poll numbers tanked to the point where he had to abandon his party or face certain defeat in the primary at the hands of a Tea Party favourite, Marco Rubio. Crist is now running as an independent and, according to most polls, Rubio is going to be a senator.
Even incumbents weren’t safe: Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania senator for five terms, was driven from the GOP when polls showed he couldn’t win the Republican nomination, though it turned out Democratic primary voters didn’t want him either.
What happened was that the US political climate moved more sharply to the right than even Republican leaders expected. The party found itself backing candidates to the left of their voters. Grassroots conservatives rebelled against their leaders. In Kentucky, Colorado, Nevada, and last month in Delaware, with the much-publicised victory of Christine O’Donnell, candidates aligned with the Tea Party defeated Republican Senate candidates recruited by the national party. They even toppled sitting Republican senators in Alaska and Utah.
The national party got its way in New Hampshire and Indiana, where the Tea Party vote was split and the establishment candidate sufficiently conservative. Republican leaders also prevailed in California, where Carly Fiorina, formerly of Hewlett Packard, faced down candidates on her left and right; and in Arizona, where Senator John McCain spent $21 million attacking his opponent.
Elsewhere, however, instead of moderate candidates who were sure to avoid gaffes or controversial stances, the party has been left trying to retake the Senate with the libertarian ophthalmologist Rand Paul in Kentucky, the hard-right Sharron Angle in Nevada, the anti-tax crusader Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania, and the suddenly famous O’Donnell in Delaware. (Incidentally, for all the focus on O’Donnell, especially from enraged Republicans fearing she’ll endanger their return to power, she is the only one of these candidates who doesn’t have much of a chance.)
What began as a gaudy protest movement against excessive federal spending and the higher taxes that are sure to follow has evolved into something else: a conservative insurgency within the Republican party, one that demands the repeal of Obama’s healthcare law and abjures bailouts of private industry. The Tea Party crowd could cost the Democrats control of Congress, but they have already ensured that many Republicans won’t be around to savour the victory.