The tea party movement served an invaluable function in 2009 and 2010 for the Republican Party. It revived the spirits of conservatives, focused the movement on fiscal conservatism and energized new activists and candidates. It did not spin off into a separate party. Without it, Republicans likely would not have taken the House in 2010.
However, in tone and candidate selection, it has failed to position Republicans to win in diverse jurisdictions. The 2010 and 2012 campaigns are strewn with the casualties of unelectable tea party candidates. So what now for the GOP?
The tea party must in essence become a coffee klatch if it is to serve the conservative, limited-government movement and help select winning candidates.
What does that mean in practice? It means expanding the party, not hectoring the GOP.
The GOP got the message in 2009. It has voted to curb spending, reform entitlements and resist tax increases. It is time to find more GOP voters and quality candidates, not to cannibalize the pool of existing candidates.
For starters, unless and until tea partyers can find candidates who have broader appeal than incumbents, it should get out of the business of primarying GOP House and Senate incumbents. Indiana was a disaster. And it will be a disaster to challenge viable, centrist conservatives in 2014 unless there is a more electable alternative. Otherwise, as in Delaware in 2010 and Missouri in 2012, the tea party is simply doing the work of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Second, the tea party can be on the front lines in reaching out beyond traditional conservative enclaves. Why should people be conservative? What do conservative policies do for them? If the conservative movement is to grow, the legwork has to be done in large part by people who understand conservative values. That includes recruiting and supporting diverse candidates at state and local levels who are capable of appealing to a general audience.
Finally, tea party groups would do well to follow the lead of pro-life groups that learned the hard way that unsuitable conservatives need to be weeded out, not elevated, in the primary process. The Washington Examiner reports:
Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List, said that her organization is changing its endorsement process in the wake of Todd Akin’s self-inflicted defeat in the U.S. Senate race in Missouri.
“We think that women are great spokeswomen, they’re natural spokeswomen — that’s why we have an emphasis on electing women as pro-life leaders,” Dannenfelser said to The Washington Examiner today while discussing Akin’s campaign. (SBA List endorsed Tea Party favorite Sarah Steelman against Akin in the Republican primary.) “In addition to that, how we talk about that and how we communicate it in a compassionate and true way — without fear — is vitally important.” . . .
She said that it’s likely that SBA List endorsement committee will work to pick the candidates most capable of articulating the group’s position at the national level.
“We go through and I drill you on all the questions, all the tough things, and then you give it back to me,” Dannenfelser said in outlining the process they will likely adopt. “And then we see if that actually merits endorsement or not, because if you can’t handle a rape question after everything that we just went through and all the damage that that caused, then you’re not paying attention and you don’t care enough to figure it out.”
Boy, is that a smart idea. (Along with that, she and other special interest groups should do away with incredibly detailed and problematic pledges.)
The GOP will have to modernize to win presidential and Senate campaigns. Likewise, the tea party will need to learn how to play in a constructive way if it is to fulfill its original purpose: moving the political process toward more conservative fiscal policy. If it doesn’t, it risks become irrelevant to the conservative movement.