There are two theories about how the tea party will fare in next year’s midterm elections.
One, that it will continue to tear apart the Republican Party, pitting establishment incumbents against Ted Cruz-type upstarts.
Or two, that it will ride the public uproar over a beleaguered president’s signature achievement – the Affordable Care Act (ACA), known as “Obamacare” – to victory.
In fact, both theories could become reality.
Just a month ago, public perceptions about the tea party movement were dour. That’s about the time of the partial government shutdown, when most Americans blamed Republicans generally and the GOP’s tea party wing in particular for a major annoyance that cost the US Treasury billions.
In mid-October, the Pew Research Center found that nearly half of the public (49 percent) had an unfavorable opinion of the tea party, while just 30 percent had a favorable opinion.
“The tea party is less popular than ever, with even many Republicans now viewing the movement negatively,” Pew reported.
But that was a month ago, and now it’s Democrats filled with angst over what Obamacare hath wrought politically. (The ACA is now viewed unfavorably by a majority of those surveyed, 53-39 percent, according to a Real Clear Politics polling average.)
As last week’s defection by 39 House Democrats show – they’re the ones who joined Republicans in voting for a big change in Obamacare – many Democratic incumbent lawmakers are looking for ways to distance themselves from the Affordable Care Act.
“Voters are dropping their support for Hagan like a health insurer dropping a bad risk,” writes Charlotte Observer editorial page editor Taylor Batten. “A new survey from Public Policy Polling in Raleigh shows Hagan in a dead heat with every potential Republican opponent, including ones most voters have never heard of. The percentage of respondents who disapprove of Hagan’s performance has jumped from 39 percent to 49 percent since September.”
Another potentially vulnerable Democrat is Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana – a state where some 93,000 people have been told their existing health insurance plans will be canceled because they don’t meet the requirements of Obamacare.
Sen. Landrieu (up for reelection next year) was out front of Obama in proposing a fix to the ACA that would allow people to keep their existing policies – which is what the president has been promising since the beginning, but which turns out not to be true – even though many experts say that could cause the whole health insurance law to fall apart because of the actuarial impact.
Joining Landrieu as cosponsors are Democratic Sens. Hagen, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, and Mark Pryor of Arkansas – all up for reelection in 2014.
Meanwhile, tea party Republican challengers are hoping to repeat what happened in 2010, when tea partiers denied veteran Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah – a solid conservative by most measures – a place on the party ballot.
Facing off against Sen. Enzi is Liz Cheney, daughter of former vice president Dick Cheney.
If Ms. Cheney can overcome charges that she’s a carpet-bagger – she spent most of her life in the Washington, DC area, first as a school girl then working in Republican administrations and as a Fox News contributor – she may have a good shot at ousting the three-term incumbent.
Republicans run little risk of losing congressional races to Democrats in Idaho, Wyoming and Utah. But if longtime incumbents such as Simpson and Enzi can fend off their GOP challengers next year, the results conceivably could lessen the tea party's zeal and reputation nationwide. That might encourage mainstream Republicans such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie who are considering running for the White House in 2016.
On the other hand, a new string of tea party victories could ignite a full-blown Republican civil war and embolden anti-establishment champions such as Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
All across the country, Republicans are watching to see where big donors, especially from the business world, will put their money and energy.
The political eruption over Obamacare is behind a lot of this.
This report includes material from the Associated Press.