While there are still a few primaries remaining this year, yesterday saw one of the last seemingly vulnerable prominent Republicans, Kansas senator Pat Roberts, prevail over his Tea Party opponent by eight points — not an easy victory, but not a nail-biter either. GOP House incumbents facing challenges from the right also won their races. Over the course of this primary season, the Tea Party has been able to claim only one significant victory, unseating House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.
From that, you might conclude that that the Tea Party is waning, beaten back by a Republican establishment determined to rid itself of this meddlesome faction. But the truth is that in some ways the movement continues to get stronger.
The Tea Party wins when it wins, and it wins when it loses. Five years after it began and long after many people (myself included) thought it would fade away, it continues to hold the GOP in its grip. For a bunch of nincompoops prancing around in tricorner hats, it’s quite a remarkable achievement.
Republican incumbents found a variety of ways to overcome Tea Party challenges this year. Roberts did it with some old-fashioned opposition research — if his opponent, a radiologist, hadn’t posted gruesome X-rays of his patients on Facebook, he might well be on his way to the Senate. Lindsey Graham got conservative primary voters to look past some occasional moderation by going on TV every day to enact a kabuki of outrage at Barack Obama’s alleged betrayal of America on Benghazi, Syria, and whatever else he could think of. Thad Cochran expanded the electorate, exploiting a quirk in Mississippi election law that allowed him to convince Democrats to vote in his runoff.
The only one who didn’t succeed was Cantor, and that was largely because he ignored the threat until it was too late. But just about every time, what the incumbent had to do in order to win ended up strengthening the Tea Party, usually because it involved moving to the right (at least rhetorically, if not substantively) to survive. Even Cochran could end up helping them in the end, by convincing them that the only way they can be beaten is through sneakiness and ideological treason. Tea Partiers now look at Mississippi and see only a reason to keep up the fight.
That’s the magic of an insurgent movement like the Tea Party. A win strengthens it by showing its members that victories are possible if they fight hard enough. And because the movement has organized itself around the idea of establishment Republican betrayal, its losses only further prove that it’s doing the right thing. Furthermore, if ordinary Republicans have to become Tea Partiers to beat Tea Partiers (even if only for a while), the movement’s influence is greater, not less. Ed Kilgore noted a couple of the things Roberts had to do in order to win:
He voted against an appropriations measure that included a project he had long sought for his alma mater, Kansas State University, and opposed a UN Treaty banning discrimination against people with disabilities over the objections of his revered Kansas Senate predecessors Bob Dole and Nancy Kassebaum.
So they may not have replaced Roberts with a Tea Partier, but by making him afraid enough to move to the right, they did the next best thing.
As I said, I used to think this movement was going to wither and die. Today though, it’s hard to see its power waning anytime soon. If it ends up winning even when it loses at the polls, there’s no reason why it can’t go on for a long time, so long as it finds enough support within the Republican base and enough incumbent Republicans who fear it.