WASHINGTON, D.C. - In a lackluster election year, the one story that seemed to offer decent drama was the "Tea Party versus the Republican Establishment" conflagration. The consensus is that the establishment won. The tea party didn’t knock out any Senate Republicans and just two House incumbents.
I am now inclined to think that wasn’t the big story and that the tea party didn’t lose. The tea party did do poorly in elections and is losing support in the electorate.
But the movement is gaining power in Congress anyway. And that is likely to hurt the Republican Party badly down the road. That's the story.
Republicans are misreading the tea leaves when it comes to the tea party.
There is nothing about the 2014 primary election results that indicates the tea party is gaining broad support. There are ample signs the appeal of the movement is petering out. But Republicans in Congress, especially the House, are pandering to the tea party ethos more than ever, as demonstrated by their antics right before the August recess.
One vote crystallizes this. The House Republicans vote to curtail the program that offers amnesty to illegal immigrants who came to America as children, DACA, was a giant symbolic slap in the face of Hispanic voters. They are the fastest growing voting bloc in the country. They are also key to the national party’s long-range strategy to win presidential and Senate elections.
So why would House Republicans cave in to the tea party once again, as they did over the government shutdown, when it is so clearly against the party’s self-interest? To a have a chance for the White House, they have to do better with Hispanics, minorities and women than they have in past elections.
The widely accepted answer is that it is in individual House members’ interests to cater to their right flank. They need to fend off conservative primary challengers and they don’t have to worry about Democratic threats in general elections because their districts have been gerrymandered to be safely Republican.
But the threat of the tea party to GOP incumbents is exaggerated. What isn’t exaggerated is the fear members of Congress have of losing their miserable jobs. It’s also hard to exaggerate the weakness of the congressional GOP leadership in guiding their caucuses down a path that will help the party at large.
So where lurks this mighty tea party power?
Not in the voting booth.
No Senate incumbents lost to real right-wingers this year. No Senate incumbents lost any primaries at all. They rarely do.
A whooping three House incumbents lost. One was a guy who got to Congress on a fluke two years ago and didn’t run a serious campaign for re-election. The other two did lose to tea party types, but the circumstances were also odd: Ralph Hall was the oldest serving member of Congress; Eric Cantor was in the leadership and fell out of sync with his district. But the Cantor loss scared his cronies in the caucus.
There are, however, tea partiers running for open seats. Ben Sasse of Nebraska is very likely to win his race and join the Cruz Caucus in the Senate. Tom Cotton of Arkansas also has a good shot at defeating Senator Mark Pryor.
It is harder to track House candidates and sort them into "Tea Party" and "Other" categories. There is no official list of tea party membership. According to one count, albeit a Democratic one, “21 of the 28 Republicans in House races have been endorsed by tea party groups or identify themselves as tea party Republicans.”
But the Brookings Institution has been tracking the ideologies of GOP candidates and there are plenty of flavors beyond tea:
“The win-loss ratio of the tea party in this season’s primaries is turning out to be a lot less important than the fact that they have been aggressively challenging Republicans at all levels,” says Elaine Kamarck of Brookings. “If the House of Representatives’ last week at work this summer was any indication, the tea party seems to be winning its internal policy battle regardless of what is happening at the polls.”
They aren’t doing well in the public opinion polls either, having steadily if not dramatically lost public support since their high in 2010.
According to a May report on a CBS News poll, “just 15 percent of Americans say they are supporters of the tea party movement - the lowest since CBS News began asking about the tea party in February 2010.”
“The movement may be losing some of its core constituency – Republicans,” according to CBS. “32 percent of self-identified Republicans now consider themselves supporters of the tea party - down 10 points from February and a decline of 23 points from July 2010, the summer before the Republican Party took control of the House of Representatives.”
The tea party seems to have rebounded somewhat since that May low point but there has been no growth in support in years.
There is one trend that legitimately scares incumbents: They are winning primaries by smaller margins than usual.
Political scientist Robert Boatright of Clark University has the historical data on margins in Senate GOP primaries:
You can see that in 2014, the far right bar, there were more races with margins under 10 percentage points. But not many.
House Republicans are in slightly worse shape according to the National Journal, though incumbents did better in primaries this year than in 2010 and 2012: “So far in 2014, fully one in five House Republican incumbents (20 percent) has gotten below 70 percent of the vote in their primaries. One out of every 10 Republicans has finished below 60 percent, the point at which things start looking truly dangerous. Both rates are actually higher than in 2012 or the "anti-incumbent year" of 2010.”
"There's no question that many members are much more concerned with their primaries than when I was first elected," Charlie Dent, a moderate Republican from Pennsylvania said to the National Journal."... And because too many of my colleagues are nervous about their primaries, it's interfering with their better judgment on governance issues. At times, I feel that too many of my colleagues are governing out of fear — or I should say, not governing out of fear."
There are, of course, many reasons why primaries are marginally tighter for Republicans than usual. The tea party phenomenon is just one of them. Congress is generally less trusted than ever. Independent expenditures are growing and change the dynamics. The country remains in a pessimistic post-recession mood that usually bodes poorly for incumbents.
Even in this climate, however, incumbents keep on winning. If congressional Republicans fear of losing is exaggerated, their fear of losing to tea party candidates is almost paranoid.
But tea party clout in Congress is growing. According to Elaine Kamarck of Brookings, “The absence of tools to enforce party discipline, the ubiquity of primary challengers to Republican incumbents and the early suggestion that incumbent margins are shrinking suggest that, in spite of tea party losses they are still having an enormous impact on their party and thus on the entire political system.”
Clearly, the aggressively anti-government, nativist and doctrinaire outlook associated with tea party-ism has also become more mainstream in the GOP caucus, if not in country. The party in Congress has moved right and perhaps thinks the country has too.
In votes like the August immigration bill in the House, however, fear was the motivator, not kinship.
But looking out on the longer horizon of 2016 and beyond, Republicans are scared of the tea party for all the wrong reasons.