Why 'tea party' tensions threaten midterm election triumph for Republicans
Sure, the tea party is energizing the Republican base. But it's also causing a significant number of missed opportunities, a rejuvenated Democratic base, and a fractured and uncontrolled Republican caucus.
In a year when Republicans stand to make considerable gains, tension between establishment Republicans and “tea party” supporters could threaten the GOP’s hopes of winning control of the House or Senate. Following tea party victories in states like Delaware, Alaska, and Nevada, 2010 is shaping up to be the year where Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele will have to modify Will Rogers’s quip: “I am not a member of any organized party – I’m a Republican.”Skip to next paragraph
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Why is tension with the tea party such a danger for the GOP? There are three main reasons.
Costing the GOP seats in Congress
First, it will almost certainly cost the Republican Party seats they would have otherwise won in November. Consider the recent Republican Senate primary in Delaware. Rep. Mike Castle, who has been elected statewide in Delaware 13 times, was supplanted by political neophyte Christine O’Donnell and a six-figure advertising buy from the Tea Party Express. Mr. Castle was a shoo-in to win a Senate seat; O’Donnell is, in the words of her own party’s state chairman, “not electable in Delaware or anywhere else for that matter.”
A similar story is playing out in the Colorado gubernatorial race. Tea party-backed candidate Dan Maes’s victory in the Republican primary prompted former Rep. Tom Tancredo to enter the race as a third-party candidate, splitting the vote on the right and giving the Democrat a golden path to the governor’s mansion.
A similar scenario is brewing in the Alaska Senate race, where incumbent Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski is mounting a strong write-in campaign against both the Democratic candidate and Joe Miller, the tea party-endorsed candidate who beat her in the primary.
Around the country, losing candidates – both tea party types and establishment Republicans – have refused to support the winner in at least 15 races, including Washington’s 3rd congressional district, the Florida gubernatorial race, and the Washington Senate contest.
When pundits talk about a party snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, it’s usually in reference to Democrats, not Republicans. This year, that may change.
To be sure, parties often have divisive primaries that don’t ultimately hinder their prospects in the general election.
One need look no further than the drawn-out primary battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton that preceded Obama’s 365 electoral-vote romp in November. But for every 2008 Democratic presidential primary, there is a New York 23rd congressional district, where, in a 2009 special election, a moderate Republican endorsed the Democratic candidate (and handed the Democrats a seat they should have lost) after being forced out of the race by a tea party-type candidate. Similar Republican disunity could give away a handful of otherwise winnable races this year.
Boosting Democratic morale
That tension could have a second harmful effect for the GOP: boosting Democratic morale. Ms. O’Donnell’s primary victory isn’t just a gift of a Senate seat to Democrats; it also provides a new foil to motivate uninspired Democrats around the country.