The defeat of Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana in Tuesday’s primary echoed into the lower chamber of Congress, where House Republicans tied to the tea party saw it as a warning shot aimed not only against the establishment, but against themselves.
The message: They need to raise the tea party standard even higher or face voters’ wrath.
Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R) of Kansas, a freshman lawmaker elected with significant tea party backing, said “the toughest question" he's asked in town halls always is: What difference have you made, Congressman Huelskamp? “Well, we can say we changed the debate, but they’re looking for results, they’re looking for solutions, they’re looking for actual budget cuts, and it hasn’t happened yet,” he says.
“If we don’t deliver shortly, they’re going to be asking for a new crop of folks up here – I really believe that,” he added at a Capitol Hill press conference.
Yet Senator Lugar – a moderate often willing to compromise with Democrats – suggested in a farewell letter that it is precisely the tea party's attitude to governing that prevents anything from being done in Congress. Taking aim at winner Richard Mourdock's belief that there’s already too much compromise in Washington, he wrote: "He will find that unless he modifies his approach, he will achieve little as a legislator."
Others echo Lugar's sentiments, saying that a doubling down on the tea party agenda could work against the desire for results.
“Gridlock actually works against what they want,” says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University in New Jersey. “The tea party wants a lot of change and so if they just scare people and everyone stands still and there is no compromise what the tea party is going to get is a Washington that looks pretty much the same a couple of years from now as it does.”
“Spending won’t change. Nothing happens," he adds. "There’s a bit of an irony in them bringing things to a standstill.”
Yet to Rep. Jeff Landry (R) of Louisiana, another tea party favorite, Lugar's 20-point defeat to state Treasurer Mourdock is a sign that “just because you’re reaching across the aisle doesn’t mean you’re solving the problems.”
Congressman Landry says he often asks his town hall attendees whether they can name a single issue Congress has resolved in the last decade – at time period when both parties have had time in the majority.
“The question is whether we’re fighting for the American people or we’re fighting over the checkbook – this becomes a credibility issue,” Landry said at the press conference.
“People will hold us accountable for achieving things, and I think it's good for our party,” said Congressman Sessions, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. It's certainly a motivating factor as leaders like Sessions "look to gather votes on the floor of the House of Representatives.”
But whether a tea party-infused ethos prevails in the House in the next session of Congress will hinge on the coming elections. And there, GOP congressmen say, the anger with Washington that burned Lugar will turn on Democrats.
“They’re holding those seeking office accountable to a level they’ve never been held before. If you can’t respond to that and be responsive, you might find yourself in trouble,” said Rep. Greg Walden (R) of Oregon at the Monitor Breakfast. “They are going to have that same energy double when it comes to the fall. If you think they’re holding us accountable, wait until they get a choice between Democrats – and following President Obama’s agenda – versus Republicans.”
Until then, conservative lawmakers are going to bear their tea party standard even higher.
“We shouldn’t carry of banner of pale pastels but of bold colors, which make it unmistakably clear where we stand on the issues,” said freshman Rep. Jeff Duncan (R) of South Carolina, quoting President Reagan, at the press conference. “We are unabashed of that conservatism and we don’t mind talking about that. Hence, we’re here.”