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.”

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.

Right now, much of the electoral danger Democrats face is due to an enthusiasm gap between Democratic and Republican voters. But candidates like O’Donnell, Sharron Angle in Nevada, and Joe Miller in Alaska will drive up morale (and thus turnout) among Democratic voters.

We’re already seeing signs of this. A new Fox News poll found that 26 percent of voters in Delaware will use their vote to express support for the tea party movement, but 41 percent would use it to express opposition. Nationwide, a CBS poll in mid-September found 63 percent of registered voters opposed to the tea party movement. Democrats have no reason for undue optimism; 2010 will probably bring them significant losses. But Republicans still need to pick up 39 seats to win the House and 10 seats to capture the Senate. Nominating unelectable candidates who motivate a depressed Democratic base could wind up costing the GOP control of one or both chambers.

More mavericks

Even after the election, the rift between tea party types and establishment Republicans could cause a third hurdle for the GOP. Optimists in the party might argue that what they will gain in ideological purity will more than offset the races they’ll lose because of the tea party. Republican leaders are probably correct in assuming that those tea party-affiliated candidates who win will maintain highly conservative voting records. But loyal GOP foot soldiers they are not.

Tea party candidates won their primaries by bucking the GOP establishment, not currying its favor. Sharron Angle in Nevada made a name for herself by frequently being the only “no” vote on many issues in the Nevada legislature.

With tea partiers rallying around her unyielding record, only a fool would expect Ms. Angle to conform if she gets to the US Senate. Rand Paul in Kentucky, who has pledged to filibuster any unbalanced budget, could also be a constant irritation to Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell, who endorsed Mr. Paul’s primary opponent.

And that assumes McConnell keeps his job. Most tea party organizers I’ve spoken with would prefer Jim DeMint as Republican Senate leader. Though a leadership change in the next Congress is unlikely, it’s certainly not impossible. DeMint will have a sizeable bloc of senators who in no small part owe their seats to his support, and if there’s a town that rewards power plays, it’s Washington.

McConnell may also be forced to deal with an issue that Democrats know all too well: the Lieberman problem. Senator Joe Lieberman lost his 2006 primary but went on to win the general election as a third-party candidate. He owes no allegiance to the progressive wing of the party, and as such has been a thorn in its side ever since, including blocking a public option in the health-care bill and endorsing Sen. John McCain for president over Obama.

Though her re-election is far from assured, Alaska’s Ms. Murkowski could find herself in a new role as the Republican Joe Lieberman in the next Congress.

To be fair, the tea party has arguably helped Republicans in some ways, including rebranding their tarnished public image. As Dave Weigel, one of the top journalists covering tea-party issues, puts it: When is a motivated base bad for a political party? His implication that an engaged base wins elections is a fair one.

But if tea party-GOP tensions result in a significant number of missed opportunities, a rejuvenated Democratic base, and a fractured and uncontrolled Republican caucus, McConnell and House Republican leader John Boehner will be left wondering how on earth they ever let the tea party get the best of them.

Scott Keyes is a researcher for Progressive Media and ThinkProgress.org at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

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