Senator Murkowski’s decision to mount a write-in campaign after losing her primary to "tea party" backed attorney Joe Miller angered many of her Senate colleagues. Even a failed bid risks splitting the Republican vote in Alaska, giving Democrats an unexpected pickup and curbing GOP prospects for taking back the Senate.
On Wednesday, the caucus did replace Murkowski with Sen. John Barrasso (R) of Wyoming as vice chair of the Republican Conference – the policy wing of Senate Republicans – but it declined to go further.
In the end, a Senator’s a Senator for A'That.
The tea party movement has already claimed several prominent GOP establishment Senate candidates, from Rep. Michael Castle (R) of Delaware, who lost his primary to activist Christine O’Donnell, to former Nevada GOP chairwoman Sue Lowden, who was lost her primary to former state assemblywoman Sharron Angle.
After some public grumbling, the GOP establishment has embraced the tea party winners. “The tea party has been a very constructive movement in American politics,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas, who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the campaign arm of the House GOP caucus. “The NRSC is going to support all the nominees,” he said.
It’s rare for a Senate caucus to eject one of its own. When four-term Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut lost the Democratic primary in 2006, then won as an Independent, Senate Democrats considered denying him chairmanship of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee, but with the chamber poised at 51 to 49, a break with Lieberman would have handed control of the Senate back to Republicans. He kept the gavel.
Sen. Jim DeMint (R) of South Carolina – an outspoken backer of tea party insurgents, even against his own colleagues – did not comment on the caucus’s decision to let Murkowski keep her ranking member status. But he said that he’s hoping to see eight to 10 more limited government conservatives in the next Senate.
"The tea party is part of a great American awakening,” he said. “Republicans cannot be the party of limited government if we’re here to take home the bacon.”