In 2010 the Tea Party took the nation by storm. A purely grassroots movement built on conservative ideals and opposition to the Obama agenda gave the GOP a historic 2010 midterm election. But despite this fervor and grassroots support the movement also cost the GOP a few key Senate seats. In NV the Tea Party helped elect firebrand state senator Sharron Angle over establishment favorite Sue Lowden. In CO the movement fueled Ken Buck to a hard-fought primary win over former Lt. Governor Jane Norton. And in DE the movement helped put Christine O’Donnell into an election she was not prepared to run over former Governor and longtime Congressman Mike Castle. These seats considered toss-ups in 2010 ended up in the Democratic column when the election was over.
Since 2010 the Tea Party has largely been quite. While the Occupy M0vement has gotten headlines and attention with rallies, protests and camp-outs on public property the Tea Party was thought to have gone dormant. The GOP led House was unable to significantly cut the budget, Mitt Romney prevailed over his more conservative rivals for the GOP presidential nomination (nope, Ron Paul is not winning it at the Convention) and few upsets were scored in Senate or Congressional primaries. That is until this month.
On May 8th the Tea Party was believed to have scored a major upset in the Indiana GOP Senate Primary when State Treasurer Richard Murdock crushed 6 term GOP Senator Richard Lugar by over 20 points. Lugar, who had not faced a tough race in almost three decades, ran an abysmal campaign. Lugar’s campaign was beset by issue after issue and Murdock received the support of millions in outside spending. Murdock will face Congressman Joe Donnelly (IN-2) in the general election.
And this Tuesday the Tea Party scored another upset in the Nebraska GOP Senate primary. Little known state senator Deb Fischer came out from nowhere to defeat establishment favorite and state Attorney General Jon Bruning. Bruning’s campaign long viewed State Treasurer Don Stenburg has his main rival and the two lit up the airwaves with attack ads. Both candidates did not hit Fischer until late but by then, with an endorsement from Sarah Palin and the Tea Party Express, Fischer was poised to pull off the upset. Bruning and Stenburg did attract conservative support from in and outside the state but they did not hold the punch that a Fischer candidacy did by the end of the race. Fischer will face former two term Governor and Senator Bob Kerrey in the general.
Fueled by these upsets minds are now turning to several upcoming primaries in TX, UT and WI where the Tea Party may see opportunities to get their preferred candidates to be the party standard-bearers. In TX, the primary is looking likely to be a two-man race between Lt. Governor David Dewhurst and conservative favorite Ted Cruz. Cruz, a former Solicitor General, has the backing of the likes of Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee. Dewhurst, better known in the state has racked up the endorsements of prominent officials like Governor Rick Perry and many state legislators. Complicating things for Dewhurst is the fact he needs to win 50% of the vote to avoid a run-off. Internal polls from the Cruz campaign show him gaining steam while Dewhurst is in the forties, held down by the fact several other candidates are splitting the vote. If Cruz can get the race to a run-off then anything is possible.
In Wisconsin the GOP primary is between former four term Governor Tommy Thompson and former Congressman Mark Neumann. Thompson has shown signs of being a weak establishment favorite. Last week at the state GOP Convention he was eliminated from endorsement contention after just the second round of balloting (with 18%). Neumann has the backing of the Club for Growth but complicating his efforts to unite the grassroots is state Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald’s presence in the race. Fitzgerald boasts ties to Walker and the grassroots in the state is fully lined up behind the Governor for the recall on June 5th.
Lastly, Utah Senator Orrin Hatch has done all the things to avoid what happened to his Senate colleague Bob Bennett in Utah. Hatch has done a 180 and become much more conservative. He spent millions on getting his delegates to the state convention and very nearly won 60% in the second round of the balloting at the convention. If he had he could have avoided a primary. As it is he only came close and must face state Senator Dan Liljenquist in a primary. Hatch is probably safe because of his move to the right but if the Tea Party Express or Club for Growth get involved in the race it could get interesting.
Some Republicans worry that just like in 2010 these upset candidates could cost the GOP Senate seats in November. But those worries are largely overstated (except for perhaps WI). IN, NB, TX, UT are a far cry from the 201o swing states of NV, CO and DE. This time the GOP will be playing on much friendlier turf in a presidential year when the incumbent is not viewed favorably by voters in the above states. Then there are the individual candidate attributes to consider.
In Indiana State Treasurer Richard Murdock is not mesmerizing on the stump. But he has held elected office in 2006 and ran a steady primary campaign against Lugar. In Nebraska Deb Fischer has been reelected easily for her state Senate seat. According to some GOP analysts she is ironically the most moderate of the three on at the very least social issues. State Republicans biggest issue with her is she has yet to thoroughly be vetted. In TX, Ted Cruz is an energizing figure. He is no Marco Rubio but he offers the GOP a young Hispanic, conservative face in an increasingly Hispanic state. And in UT the state is so Republican Lilinquist would likely have to drop out to lose if he beat Hatch.
The one wildcard here is WI. Neumann has held elected office before. But unlike the other states WI is a swing state and currently highly polarized. Having Thompson on the ticket might not be a bad idea. Still, Democrats are set to nominate a highly liberal (and gay) Congresswoman in Tammy Baldwin to be their nominee. So perhaps Neumann may not look so bad in comparison.
Murdock, Fischer, Cruz and Neumann are not Angle, Buck or O’Donnell. They have all held elected office. They have all run excellent campaigns so far and appeal to the grassroots while also maintaining an appeal to independents. These are not re-runs of failed 2010 Tea Party candidates.
Still, if one takes a look at the scorecard the Tea Party has already done well. A respected 6 term Senator crushed in Indiana. A little-known state Senator coming up the middle to win Nebraska. A former state Solicitor General threatening in TX. And a former Congressman in WI and state Senator in Utah giving establishment favorites an extreme case of heartburn. Some could say the Tea Party has already won!