2010 was known as the year of the Tea Party. That year Republicans won massive numbers of seats in the House, gained six seats in the Senate and took numerous governorships and state legislative chambers. But amid that success the movement also recorded failures with losses for Senate seats in Colorado, Delaware and Nevada.
With the recent passage of the Ryan/Murray budget deal and John Boehner finally voicing his displeasure with his right, right flank the Tea Party finally has something to get motivated about. Yet unlike 2010, when numerous Senate and Gubernatorial candidates surged ahead of establishment favorites (Rand Paul anybody), the Tea Party seems to have a recruitment issue this time around. Despite having numerous challengers to sitting GOP Senators none seem to be serious challengers.
Consider that Senate Republican incumbents are being challenged in Kentucky, Mississippi, Texas, Tennessee, South Carolina and Wyoming. Yet only one challenger, state senator Chris McDaniel in Mississippi even appears close to being considered a top tier challenger to a sitting incumbent. Elsewhere not so much. In Kentucky while Mitch McConnell might be unpopular and endangered it is not due to Matt Bevin. In Texas, John Stockman might only be popular with himself. Certainly Lindsey Graham might be endangered considering he has supported cap and trade and most recently comprehensive immigration reform but none of his three challengers are near to matching him in money or campaign infrastructure. Tennessee’s Senator Lamar Alexander is actually popular so good luck deposing him. Lastly, in Wyoming Liz Cheney is positioning herself with the Tea Party but in truth she appeals to them as much as her opponent does. McDaniel is challenging longtime Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran who many had doubts about on running again.
The free spending of third party groups that boosted the Christine O’Donnell’s and Sharron Angle’s of the world to the top in 2010 appear to have ended. Club for Growth which endorsed both of the aforementioned candidates in 2010 has only endorsed McDaniel. In competitive GOP primaries to take on endangered Democratic incumbents the number is zero. Only the Senate Conservatives Fund has been more active, endorsing and donating to several upstart challengers.
It should come as little surprise then that Mitch McConnell would blacklist firms working with the Senate Conservatives Fund and John Boehner would feel safe to voice his displeasure with these groups. Indeed, Paul Ryan, once their star has now fallen into the dreaded “establishment hole.” The Senate Conservatives Fund and the grassroots might not like it but the wager is that they will still come out and vote if for no other reason than to give a middle finger to the President and Obamacare.
In 2010 the grassroots was active and engaged. They were angry at the establishment picking candidates and went the other way many times as a result. But this year the grassroots has been active but not in the same way. Instead, the insurrections that have plagued the GOP have come from the likes of Ted Cruz and massive third party groups. These groups pushed the GOP into the shutdown fight they did not want. They pushed the GOP into the fiscal cliff at the beginning of the year as well. Well, let’s just say they are not popular with party insiders and leave it at that.
The Tea Party and its supporters have had trouble recruiting strong challengers this cycle partly because the establishment has been smarter in their approach to primaries. In 2009 and 2010 they outright endorsed preferred nominees. In 2011 and 2012 they stayed out of primary fights. Now in 2013 they have waded back into them with a vengeance but have been smart to let their preferred nominees craft their own messages to voters. They also have stayed out of others.
Some of the movement’s most successful candidates from 2009 and 2010; Governor Chris Christie in New Jersey, Rand Paul in Florida, Ron Johnson in Wisconsin, Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania and Marco Rubio in Florida, have all undoubtedly disappointed the movement. Rand Paul has cozied up with McConnell, Chris Christie has publicly blasted the movement, Ron Johnson voted for the the government shutdown ending bill in October, Toomey helped craft gun control legislation based on background checks (it ultimately failed) and Marco Rubio endorsed immigration reform before he opposed it. All this suggests that in their own way the movement’s heroes are conservative they tend to disappoint.
It has helped that Obamacare has been front and center for the party for a month and a half. The wounds in party unity over the budget shutdown were able to be bandaged, at least for a time. Republican voters may be enraged at their party leadership but they are more so at Obamacare and the President. Yet for the Tea Party in 2014 that does not bode well. It means a bad electoral year for their nominees even if it is ultimately a good one for the GOP.