The Tea Party Is a Victim of Its Own Success

Real conservatives won on the issues, so the GOP is just fighting over personality.

In the wake of Republican primaries in Nebraska, Kentucky, Georgia, Idaho and Arkansas, it’s now clear that 2014 will not see the election of a second Ted Cruz or Rand Paul — no solid conservative with national star power, no fire-in-the-belly activist willing to confront the GOP establishment in a big way.

The mainstream press has been only too happy to report that, while the tea party has been vigorously challenging establishment Republican incumbents across the country this spring, it has also generally been losing. And where the tea party has actually managed to win, its candidates don’t appear to have anything like the ability to lead or inspire that we’ve seen in stars like Cruz or Paul.

Now, the press is simply wrong to conclude that the grassroots’ current string of losses are evidence that the “tea party is dead.” Rather, as conservative commentators Matt LewisPhil KleinDavid Horowitz and others have pointed out, the tea party is losing because it is winning. That is, it has nearly completed its takeover of the GOP, and thus has picked off the low-hanging fruit. The tea party is a victim of its own success.

Having won on issues, conservatives are now reduced to fighting over things like resume and personality. And incumbents tend to win those fights. This helps explains the bizarre U.S. senate primary in Nebraska last week, where both of the top two candidates were arguably “tea party” and arguably “establishment” at the same time. 

Virtually every Republican candidate nowadays, and every one who wins, is what GOP campaign professionals call a “full-spectrum” conservative: pro-life, pro-Second Amendment, pro-Obamacare repeal, pro-balanced budgets, anti-amnesty. 

As a result, the “establishment” label has been reduced to being synonymous with “incumbent.” And those incumbents who have successfully fended off tea party challengers — which so far, has been all of them — have done so thanks largely to the basic advantages of incumbency: high name recognition and generous amounts of special interest advertising.

Meanwhile, those of us who are scanning horizon desperately for the next Ted Cruz or Rand Paul — for the philosophically grounded conservative who is not only sound on issues but also eager to take bold risks for his convictions — can officially give up our search. There will be no Ted Cruzes or Rand Pauls elected in 2014.

Kentucky: Matt Bevin’s heroic challenge to the incumbents’ incumbent, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, ended last night in a 63 percent to 36 percent rout. Even if he had won, Bevin, a pleasant former businessman, was never an ideological firebrand or even much of a communicator.

Nebraska: National conservatives seem desperate to believe that youthful, whip-smart Nebraskan Ben Sasse, who last week won his state’s GOP nod for Senate following a brilliant campaign, will be this cycle’s shining light. But the “tea party” mantle has never really sat comfortably on Sasse, who is temperamentally disinclined to confrontation. Although he hasn’t been elected to anything yet, he is already being compared to Jack Kemp and Paul Ryan. While the comparisons do have a certain resonance, he strikes me as more of a Marco Rubio: winsome and articulate, but also politically cautious. Despite formidable rhetorical gifts and extensive academic training, he seems unwilling to ground his policy views in a consistent set of legal and economic principles, preferring Sarah Palin-like “values” talk and evangelical dog whistles. Remarkably vague on what he’d do in the Senate, Sasse has said he will vote for Mitch McConnell for Republican leader, making me suspect that he will turn out, like his fellow midwesterner Paul Ryan, to be a loyal GOP soldier who prefers to “work within the system.”

Georgia: Georgia’s Senate primary featured five main candidates, all of them full-spectrum conservatives and none of them a Ted Cruz or Rand Paul, by any stretch. While Reps. Paul Broun and Phil Gingrey were the rightmost candidates, and pro-life darling Karen Handel was the focus of a late boomlet including a Palin endorsement, all fell by the wayside last night. Instead, two non-tea-partiers will face off will face off in the July 22 runoff: conventional conservative Representative Jack Kingston and wealthy businessman David Perdue.

Idaho: National conservatives had placed big bets on Bryan Smith, a tea party favorite, to take out squishy incumbent Representative Mike Simpson. But GOP leaders in Washington, sensing a Mike Lee-like threat to a reliable establishment vote, rushed to Simpson’s defense, and K Street quickly followed up with an avalanche of PAC-funded TV ads. Smith’s otherwise competent campaign was simply swamped.

Arkansas: Last night, state lawmaker Bruce Westerman bested businessman Tommy Moll in a House race that had devolved into a contest of “who’s more anti-Obamacare.” Although Westerman was vulnerable, having voting for the controversial Obamacare Medicaid expansion in Arkansas before he voted against it, he managed to pull out a win over the newcomer Moll. Westerman will likely win the general election in November, in the same GOP-leaning district that elected Tom Cotton; but his skills pale beside those of a Ted Cruz. 

Looking ahead, a few “tea party challenger versus establishment incumbent” primaries remain to be decided in Kansas, South Carolina and Mississippi. But in all of those races, the grassroots challengers are likely to lose to the incumbent, and none has so far displayed anything like genuine star power.

The closest thing we’ve seen this cycle to a true, Cruz-Paul-style gut fighter has been U.S. senate candidate Greg Brannon in North Carolina, a passionate constitutional conservative with libertarian leanings. He was handily dispatched by the state’s House speaker, Thom Tillis, a full-spectrum conservative with establishment support.

Ergo: There will be no Ted Cruzes or Rand Pauls elected this year.

What happens two years from now is a whole different story.

 Dean F. Clancy, a former senior Republican official in Congress and the White House, writes on U.S. health reform, budget and constitutional issues. Follow him at deanclancy.com or on Twitter: @deanclancy.


 [Originally published at usnews.com, May 21, 2014. @usnewsopinion. Republished at deanclancy.com.]

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