The tea party has become the dog that caught the bus. After chasing after electoral victories, it finally won one (in Virgina’s 7th Congressional District) and may push the gaffe-ridden Chris McDaniel over the finish line against an unimpressive incumbent, Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.). But then what?
On the House side the far right booted Majority Leader Eric Cantor in favor of Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) – an amiable pol with iffy conservative credentials and a fondness for immigration reform – or Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), a more conservative proponent of immigration reform. McCarthy, the considerably less conservative of the two, is expected to win tomorrow. The Va-7 seat won’t in all likelihood be lost, nor will the GOP lose the House. So it is a loss for Cantor and conservative reform but not a tragedy for the party.
The stakes are higher when it comes to the Senate. The question there is whether the groups that spent millions to defeat Cochran will spend the money needed, if McDaniel wins the primary, to make sure McDaniel defeats Democrat Travis Childers. Moreover, it’s not clear they have the funds or the ability to protect other more capable Republicans candidates (e.g. Ben Sasse in Nebraska, Joni Ernst in Iowa, Terri Lynn Land in Michigan) if McDaniel becomes the Todd Akin of the 2014 cycle. (His primary campaign has already demonstrated his proclivity for gaffes and brought to light a trail of objectionable comments from his radio show days.)
Republican wariness of the tea party has increased steadily since it debuted as a genuine grass-roots movement in 2009. Part of that no doubt has to do with the Beltway groups that grabbed the tea party label, raised oodles of cash and spent relatively little of it on candidates. (They had no skin in the game in the effort to bring down Cantor.) But Republicans also see the problem with tea partiers’ electoral judgment and stunts such as the government shutdown. It is to be expected then that Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll “found that 41% of non-tea party Republicans believe the tea party has too much influence. Of self-described tea partiers, 56% say they have too little influence, compared with just 3% who said they have too much.”
The GOP has plenty of Senate races in play, so their chances of taking the Senate remain high. But recklessly challenging incumbents without a solid alternative and a game plan for filling the incumbent’s role in the party and Congress is dicey for the tea party. The tea party and its cadre of backbenchers in office have become expert in disrupting government and stoking fear in the GOP electorate. So long as they lack a game plan for winning general elections and for governance, however, they’ll remain a liability for the party.