Some in the left blogosphere declare that the tea party is dead. Others argue it is so dominant that it could block New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s path to the White House. It’s hard to have it both ways. That said, I think the “tea party is dead” pundits overstate the matter but are closer to the truth.
If you look at the numbers, support for the tea party is down among voters in general and down among Republicans. Trends can reverse but if this were tea party stock you’d sell — fast. Despite the Virginia spin from far-right groups and radio talk show hosts, the comparison between a big win in a blue state with a mainstream Republican and a loss in a purple state with a tea party-identified candidate was hard to ignore.
There is also the stirring of Main Street Republicans who have figured out if they want to win and want a functioning government then it is inadvisable to go with a tea party extremist. The results in the Alabama CD-1 show that even in the reddest places the tea party style of slash and burn has fall out of favor even in the Deep South. Once lawmakers digest the polls and see some actual election results (not to mention primary challenges from the center), the tea party tends to lose its allure.
Although the outside groups like Club for Growth, Madison Project and Heritage Action declare “it is important to fight” (not necessarily win) and get “real” conservatives (not necessarily enough to make a majority), there is a point at which corporate and individual donors throw up their hands and say, “Enough!” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) understands this all too well and felt emboldened enough to say it out loud recently: “I think, honestly, many [Republicans] have been misled. . . . They’ve been told the reason we can’t get to better outcomes than we’ve gotten is not because the Democrats control the Senate and the White House but because Republicans have been insufficiently feisty. Well, that’s just not true, and I think that the folks that I have difficulty with are the leaders of some of these groups who basically mislead them for profit. . . . They raise money . . . take their cut and spend it.”
You also see tea party favorites begin to curb their behavior and adjust focus. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) backs McConnell, while Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) are steering clear of efforts to unseat their colleagues. Even more telling, Lee delivered some mild rebukes to the far right recently and laid out an affirmative agenda. With Obamacare on the ropes, the desire to behave responsibly and focus on governance increases.
In short, there are multiple indications that the glory days of the tea party are past. This does not mean — and here liberals miss the point — that there will not be right wingers in the GOP. There is a difference between a hardline conservative and those who were elected by and identify with the tea party. The latter are openly hostile to government, practice all-or-nothing politics, attack the GOP as much if not more so than the Democrats, and repudiate compromise. Hardline conservatives may not differ at all on policy outcomes (although there are tough conservatives who want out of the gay marriage debate and are pro-immigration while most others of their ilk do not). However, they are more realistic in their outlook, more civil in their demeanor and more positive in their agenda. When Lee decided to criticize the shutdown and came out with not one but several interesting policy speeches he traversed the divide between tea party and the staunch right wing.
It should not be surprising when a splinter group within a party (and the tea party did decide to remain in the GOP tent) fades away to practically nothing. Such groups either catch on, take over the party and go mainstream (e.g. Reagan Republicans) or they wither away (or simply get beaten) as happened to the left in the Clinton era. What that leaves the GOP with, therefore, is pretty much what they have had for decades — a mix of moderate and hardline conservatives with periodic additions of right-leaning independents.
Whether the more conservative faction wins depends on the skill of the candidates and their campaigns, who is in the race (i.e. do a bunch of very conservative candidates cannibalize the right side of the field) and what issues come to the forefront. (Foreign policy experience helped Sen. John McCain in 2008, Mitt Romney’s economic expertise both hurt and helped him in the 2012 primary.)
So it is nonsense to say this or that candidate “will be stopped in Iowa” or “be rejected by the tea party.” For starters Iowa narrows the field while other states traditionally have picked the winner. Moreover, if a moderate gets 30 percent of the caucus and five other candidates carve up the rest he’s the winner — by a mile. When the race dwindles (if it does) to just a couple or three candidates then the ability to pick up voters ideologically different from the candidate kicks in and electability, personality and money count for a lot. It is only at the end or sometime after a spirited primary that the party comes together for the sake of unity (as it did in 1980 when George H.W. Bush went onto the ticket).
From our vantage point, the tea party is dwindling but the right wing lives on. To the degree it cannot unify early in the race around a single standard bearer it runs the risk of carving up a share of the electorate and leaving the rest for a mainstream conservative to sweep up. To the degree the centrist Republicans also have competition among themselves, that makes the task of their faction harder. In all of this the key question is not then whether the tea party stops Christie; it is whether (aside from his own merits and flaws) Christie draws real competition for the primary votes of moderates, right-leaning independents (where they can participate) and centrist Republicans.