In 2009 the Tea party burst onto the political scene. Derided by the mainstream media, ignored as far right quacks by the GOP establishment and seemingly lacking any true organization the group seemed doomed from the start. But since that time the Tea Party has notched a notable number of successes under its belt. In 2010, the movement fueled a 63 seat GOP gain in the House and six seats in the Senate. The movement also helped elected libertarian/fiscal conservative hawks Mike Lee (UT) and Rand Paul (KY) in reliably red states and Marco Rubio (FL) in a true swing state.
But despite the movement’s successes it has also notched notable failures. In 2010 the movement saw Sharron Angle (NV) and Christine O’Donnell (DE) go down to defeat. O’Donnell was notable because she defeated a sure thing candidate in moderate GOP Congressman and former Governor Mike Castle for the party’s nod. In 2012, the movement also knocked out Indiana Senator Richard Lugar for being moderate on immigration and climate change. Richard Mourdock, the movement’s candidate, would eventually go onto lose the race, and seat, for the GOP because of comments on rape and abortion. As for Todd Akin, contrary to popular belief, he was not a Tea Party candidate. He was elected on the backs of social conservatives in rural Missouri.
Still, the movement shrugged off 2012 and prepared for a bright 2014. Tea Party backed candidates were buoyed by the unpopularity of the President, Congress’s abysmal approval ratings and the grassroot’s antipathy towards the establishment. But two things changed in 2014 from 2010 and 2012. The party establishment unified against the movement’s candidates and outside groups that had supported Tea Party candidates in the past (Freedomwork’s, Tea Party Express) did not spend on their behalf. The result has been a paltry showing for the movement. Further, some of the Tea Party’s most stellar 2010 candidates face tough reelection battles (Sam Brownback, Scott Walker).
In primaries across the country the Tea Party has seen none of its preferred candidate’s defeat an incumbent Senator. Mitch McConnell, personifying the establishment as Minority Leader, lead the establishment push back against the movement. He bombarded Tea Party candidate Matt Bevin in his primary early and often. In Texas, Senator Jon Cornyn easily defeated his Tea party opponents with heavy advertising and get out the vote efforts.
Early defeats made the Tea party turn towards the one race it could win; Mississippi. Senator Thad Cochran was running for a sixth term and had purposely ignored the Tea Party. His opponent, Chris McDaniel’s, raised millions and won the initial primary with 49%. But he failed to garner the 50% needed to avoid a run-off. In the June 24th run-off Cochran exceeded all expectations and managed to pull out a squeaker by appealing to liberal, black voters. The strategy was hatched and funded by establishment PACs and operatives. Now, McDaniels is waging a one man crusade to argue the election was stolen. McDaniel’s lost by over 7,000 votes and he claims his campaign has found over 25,000 voting irregularities.
Last week, primaries in Kansas and Tennessee concluded. In Kansas, Senator Pat Roberts defeated Milton Wolf in a particularly nasty race 48.1%-40%. Moderate Senator Lamar Alexander defeated state senator Joe Carr Thursday but with less than 50% of the vote. Despite the failure of the movement’s candidates it can point to the fact both incumbents did not hit 50% of the primary vote.
It is also notable this cycle how the Tea Party has done in targeted Democratic seats. In West Virginia, the movement has not endorsed Shelley Moore Capito to take over for retiring Senator Jay Rockefeller (D). But the movement did not endorse an opponent either. In South Dakota, the movement never settled on a nominee and former Governor and establishment pick Mike Rounds easily won his primary. In the competitive North Carolina Senate primary the movement split on its support of two candidates, Greg Brannon and Mark Harris. This allowed state House Speaker Thom Tillis won his primary with over 40% of the vote.
Despite the Tea Party’s antagonistic relationship with the establishment they have endorsed establishment candidates in several races. Steve Daines in Montana has earned the endorsement of the Tea Party Express. Freshman Congressman Tom Cotton in Arkansas has unified the various wings of the party. In Iowa, state senator Joni Ernst has captured the party by storm and could steal the purple Senate seat Democrats have held for three decades.
Ultimately, this cycle the Tea Party has failed to field a single nominee for the Senate. But the movement has continued to shift the internal conversation within the GOP ideologically further to the right. This remains the movement’s most enduring success.