After the March 2nd Texas primary, CNN proclaimed "Tea party changes tone, but not outcome of Texas primary." Politico's Jonathan Martin asks, "Is the tea party movement a paper tiger?" Locally, a San Angelo, Texas paper framed the result as "GOP incumbents held seats against Tea Party."
This is a classic straw man, and a dramatic misreading of the tea party's political objectives.
Somehow, national media types got it into their heads that the tea party movement was the magic elixer for the kinds of unknown, underfunded and largely unskilled candidates who run in every race to claim the mantle of "tea party candidate" and knock off incumbents. A perusal of the Texas results at the Congressional level shows that the over/under for random, unknown unchallengers (a/k/a "tea party candidates") to incumbents was about 14%. This is basically the "none of the above" vote that materializes in every primary. When a prohibitive frontrunner has a semi-credible challenger, the frontrunner usually wins 70-30. Even when the challenger is unknown or unacceptable, 15 or 20 percent is doable. Convicted felon Lyndon LaRouche got that in some Democratic primaries against Bill Clinton in '96.
Beyond that, the subtext is also that the tea party empowers uniquely conservative candidates, with Rubio/Crist as the model for every primary in the country.
It's clear that there is a lot more primary activity than there was in '06 and '08, largely because the prospects of getting elected as a Republican this year are so good. And in those primaries, proclaiming oneself a "tea party candidate" is about as fashionable as proclaiming oneself a "social media expert."
Going state by state and district by district, the case for conservative ascendancy in primaries is muddled at best. For every Rubio/Crist, there is a Mark Kirk walk-in-the-park. The '08 primaries showed that Republican primary voters are if nothing else pragmatic.
A few basic misconceptions underlie the expectation that the more conservative the primary candidate, the better their chances are at winning. And the main one is that conservatives are uniquely advantaged this year because the tea parties show the party is moving right.
This notion would require one to believe that the grassroots base of the GOP -- not its leaders, but its base -- was somehow un-conservative prior to '09 and '10. There's no evidence for that. Fueled by Rush Limbaugh and talk radio, 1994 was a conservative year. In fact, 1994 probably marked the end of the shift in the ascendancy of conservatives over moderates in Republican grassroots politics, a shift that started with Goldwater. Ever since '94, the ideological change within the Republican Party has been marginal at best.
What has changed in the last two years, is that Republicans are now unshackled from having to defend the Bush Administration and the mood of the country, and inside the Republican Party in particular, has grown more solidly anti-establishment. Those changes alone can explain the emergence of the tea party movement.
While the case for conservative ascendancy in primaries is muddled, what isn't muddled is this: run as the milquetoast candidate of the arrogant establishment, and you lose.
Practically every electorally relevant example points in this direction.
Florida Senate? Check.
Texas Governor? Check.
In Texas, the tea party candidate was not Debra Medina. It was Rick Perry, whose political fortunes were revived around the Tax Day tea parties last year. That points to a movement that is much more broadly relevant than the marginal nutjob candidacies that media is holding up as an example of the movement's failures. I know that one can point to Medina strength among the organizers -- and I've certainly played up the role Ron Paul's brigades have played in that effort -- but there is a convincing case that the rank-and-file attendees and their compatriots who followed from the radio dial or Fox News were solidly with Perry. And that's who matters when delivering votes in a primary, as opposed to a straw poll.
But more importantly, the movement was aligned against Kay Bailey Hutchison, who barely disguised her sense of entitlement at holding not one, but two statewide offices. Strike one was trying to elbow aside Perry with a blatant "It's my turn" appeal not to run again, and then going ahead with a challenge. Strikes two and three were the Texas Two-Step around resigning her office, which, quelle surprise, will likely end up with Hutchison holding on to public office against her word.
The KBH fall is of a piece with the staggering fall of "All About Charlie" Crist, who ran on a sense of entitlement before he finished the job voters elected him to do. Only a few words need to be said about Charlie Crist: pride before the fall.
And NY-23 was a similar case of an arrogant establishment attempting to oppose its will against that of primary voters, and getting pwned in the process.
Do you see a pattern here?
Yes, each of these cases was one of a "conservative" beating a "moderate" -- but each also had the essential ingredient of a particularly noxious stench of self-entitlement on the part of the losers.
As ever, public servants need to place the emphasis on the latter part of that title: servant. Those advantaged by a long career of winning elections need to be particularly humble and even servile to the will of the electorate, especially in this environment. Votes cannot be assumed. They must be earned.
There is no easy template for tea party victory in a Republican primary. Saying you are Marco Rubio does not make you Marco Rubio. Rubio's success is due as much to Crist's arrogance and the movement-like aura Rubio has been able to build around himself as it is to a simple ideological contrast. Those whose job it is to run and win elections quickly learn that attributes -- those pesky personal qualities like honesty, integrity, intelligence, and authenticity -- matter a whole lot more than issues, even in primaries. This is not diminish the importance of principle but to acknowledge the reality that it alone is not enough, and having a good, plausible candidate, campaign, and message still matters a whole lot.