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March 20, 2014 11:57 AM Is the Tea Party Dead—Or Winning?

By Ed Kilgore

For hardly the first time, but with greater conviction than ever, there’s a big media meme this week that the apparent weakness of right-wing primary challengers to Republican senators means the Tea Party Movement has finally run its course and the Republican Establishment is fully back in the saddle again. Josh Kraushaar makes this judgment by looking at the support garnered by the GOP primary challengers. Molly Ball comes to the same conclusion by focusing on the ability of GOP congressional leaders to head off Tea Party-led kamikaze missions.

But at The Federalist Ben Domenech reminds the obituarists that you judge the power of a political movement not just by horse-race victories or even legislative battles, but by its influence over its targets. And by that measure, the Tea Party Movement has come a very long way since Santelli’s Rant:

The Tea Party’s success is not gauged by primaries alone. It’s gauged by how much the Tea Party’s priorities become the Republican Party’s priorities.
The Tea Party’s impact in primaries is largely about putting fear into establishment candidates, whether they knock them off or not. It took them two cycles, but the traditional Republican establishment took the right lessons from the Bennett and Lugar losses. Orrin Hatch spent 2011-12 voting lockstep with Mike Lee. Primary threats made Mike Enzi part of the organizing group for the defund push. Pat Roberts is doing his best to don the winger apparel. Lindsey Graham is trying like mad to re-establish his conservative credentials. Thad Cochran is the exception that proves the rule: it’s no accident that a traditional Washington appropriator who hasn’t modified his ways is the most vulnerable GOP Senator this cycle. So if establishment Republicans understand that they are vulnerable in primaries, and have to pretend to be Tea Partiers when they’re in cycle, is that a sign that the Tea Party is dead - or a sign that it’s had a significant political impact?
Within the realm of Senate primaries, there’s not as clear-cut of a field of candidates this time in the challenger side with appropriators on one side and strong limited government types on the other (see Nebraska, where Tea Party folks are split between Sasse and Osborn). And the story hasn’t been finalized in North Carolina or Georgia. But even considering the relatively narrow issue of primaries, it’s clear that establishment guys who run as establishment guys lose: their path to winning is to appeal to the Tea Party, champion opposition to Obamacare, hoist the musket and run as right-wingers. Is the fact Mitch McConnell is winning his primary today because of Rand Paul a sign of Tea Party weakness? I think not.
This also speaks to the generational point, where we see Tea Partiers elected to lower level offices rise to take more prominent positions, backed by a new infrastructure of groups which can offset traditional fundraising routes.

These are precisely the points I tried to make in responding to the “death of the Tea Party” assessments of the Texas primary earlier this month. The gap between conventional conservative Republicans and the Tea Folk has always been exaggerated; it’s mainly a matter of strategy and tactics rather than ideology or policy. Even on strategy and tactics, the “Establishment” has mainly tamped down Tea Party demands for fiscal confrontations by adopting the Tea Folk obsessions with Obamacare and the pseudo-scandals involving the IRS and Benghazi! (now extended to an indictment of Obama’s “weakness” and anti-American instincts with respect to Ukraine). And if you look at actual primary elections, Senate “Establishment” victories—which many are proclaiming before they actually occur—are being achieved by vast concessions to the conservative activist “base,” which in turn is doing very well down-ballot.

Future discussions of the fate of the Tea Party Movement really do need to take these broader dimensions more fully into account, along with the current reality that the only 2016 GOP presidential likelies generating any excitement are politicians deeply marinated in Tea Party rhetoric and ideology. When Scott Walker is the closest thing “the Establishment” may have to a viable presidential candidate, talk of an Establishment victory looks pretty hollow.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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