The conventional wisdom is that Tuesday was a mixed bag for the tea party movement thanks to losses of tea party-backed candidates in Colorado, Nevada, Delaware, and Alaska. Even outlets on the right feel like it was a disappointing showing. Some moderate Republicans are grousing that tea party enthusiasm in Nevada and Delaware cost the Republicans Senate seats.
If your context is two weeks instead of two years, then that makes a lot of sense. In fact, if think long-term both in the past and the future, tea partiers had much to be proud of on Tuesday.
1. The tea party movement gave grassroots activists a reason to be excited.
Remember the campaign of 2008, when cool, smooth Barack Obama trounced that doddering old fool John McCain? Remember 70% approval ratings and mastery of all forms of media, even the ones you hadn’t heard of yet? Remember Pepsi changing its logo to look more like Obama’s?
Obama wasn’t just a politician when he came into office, he was a pop culture phenomenon. What’s more, the enthusiasm his campaign engendered had turned red states like Indiana, North Carolina, and Virginia blue. Meanwhile, and more important, as Obama spoke of health care and financial reform, Republicans could only play defense as the “party of ‘No.'” The popular image was of a party bereft of ideas.
Would you sit in a cramped campaign office and make phone calls for that party?
As the tea party movement got underway, it gave conservative activists something productive to do – and the chance to rail against the President’s programs in well-organized displays of opposition that also built a solid political infrastructure. The smart conservative groups – like FreedomWorks – jumped on the bandwagon right away, recognizing the value in an organic movement of politically passionate individuals and helping set them up to take meaningful action later.
2. Tea party rallies set the terms of the debate over Administration initiatives.
To understand how tea party activism changed the debate over health care, consider that the health care industry was lining up behind the Democrats. If you were in the industry, the bill seemed inevitable and the smart move was to figure out how to get some federal money to wet your beak.
Tea partiers responded to the health care bill, the automobile industry bailouts, and economic recovery initiatives like TARP and the stimulus packages with a consistent small-government message. Republicans still burdened by the yolk of a surprisingly big-government Bush Administration could not initiate this message, but they sure could respond to it.
This week’s election was framed by a philosophical debate over the role of government. That had a lot to do with the fact that, for all the jokes about misspelled signs, the tea party movement had a pretty consistent message.
3. The 2010 primary season was a wake up call to 2012 Republican candidates.
Mike Castle should have been able to beat Christine O’Donnell the way the hare should have been able to beat the tortoise. So it’s tough to say that an easy primary would have resulted in a cakewalk to November victory. Ditto for the established Nevada Republicans running against Harry Reid, who found themselves on the sideline after Sharron Angle’s upset. It is tempting to play “shoulda woulda coulda” with the primary results, but the fact is that these primary losers chose not to engage an excited base of conservative activists for fear of not appearing moderate enough to win a general election. They chose poorly.
Meanwhile, John McCain recognized the early threat of a challenger, acted like his primary was an election and not a coronation, and is still a Senator. In winning re-election, McCain demonstrated that tea partiers aren’t out for blood, but they do want elected officials who are responsive to the folks they represent. And any incumbent or favored Republican for a 2012 office now can get a nice head start.
If Virginia’s George Allen wants a rematch with Jim Webb in 2012, he will have to understand he has work to do among Virginia conservatives. Long-time GOP incumbents like Olympia Snowe, Orrin Hatch, and Richard Lugar – and even first-time incumbents like Bob Corker – now have a year and a half to start making nice with their respective bases. There may still be messy primary battles, but the so-called “better candidates” who could deliver general election victories will be ready for them.
Incidentally, a big bonus win, this splash of cold water does not include Sharron Angle or Christine O’Donnell actually winning races and being Senators – which might have been distracting and damaging to ongoing GOP efforts. Those two darlings of media ridicule are gone now
The tea party movement is in fact a political movement and not a political party. Because of that, tea partiers have the luxury of having their effectiveness judged over multiple election cycles. To use an example on the other side, one might have said after the 2004 election that the online left “netroots” were a failure – Howard Dean didn’t win any primaries, and they didn’t knock off President Bush in a tight election that was winnable for John Kerry. But in a parallel to the 2010 Alaska race, they defeated Joe Lieberman in a Democratic primary in 2006 and formed the base of an impressive grassroots effort for Obama in 2008. Similarly, the real measure of the tea party movement – as either a one-cycle phenomenon or a long-term grassroots movement – will be clearer in 2012.