The notion that there are lots of people on the right who consider themselves conservatives first and Republicans second is not new (though a national reporter once e-mailed me professing shock at hearing someone say this for the first time). What is different this time is that the tea parties lend some modicum of organization to the right's rabblerousing opposition, and the D.C. mandarins are busy trying to figure out if this power can be wielded electorally and whether that helps or hurts Republicans.
Rasmussen's question actually explains a lot. Like the fact that the national GOP is poised to pick up a bunch of seats while their numbers remain in the toilet.
Depending on the poll, approval of Congressional Republicans (and their leaders) is in the high teens or low twenties, close to the GOP number in today's survey. In the progressive blogosphere, this is the most common talking point against the notion that Republicans might win in 2010.
Though a curiosity, Congressional GOP approval is actually irrelevant to next year's election results. That's because a big chunk of the disapproval comes from the "Tea Party" that thinks the GOP is not doing enough fast enough. Combined, the Teapublicans get 41 percent of the vote to the Democrats' 36 percent. If I'm solely concerned with electoral strategy, I want people to be highly motivated to vote, because turnout is everything in a midterm. And the more Tea'd off these voters are, the better for Republicans. The good news for Democrats is that a mythical right-wing splinter party splits the base down the middle. The bad news is that they still vote Republican in a two-way, and the Tea Partiers are singlehandedly driving a massive enthusiasm gap over the left that renders a Republican victory even more likely. As we saw in 2006 and 2008, enthusiasm gaps matter.
The prevalence of the Tea Party movement does hold a cautionary note for the GOP -- if they win. The danger is that Republicans will interpret a victory as a sign that all is well in the party, and that they can go back to their old ways pre-2008. In other words, they'll confuse a Teapublican victory for an old-school Republican mandate.
However, the reason that Republicans are now at the mercy of the tea parties to drive their GOTV is because they drove spending through the roof (at least in pre-Obama terms) and agreed to the bailouts. The protests were as much a reaction to Republicans selling out as they were to the incipient Obama administration, though the passage of time has shifted the focus to the present Administration. The notion that the Tea Party -- of all people -- will be unenthused about voting in November 2010 is wishful thinking, particularly when a clear opportunity exists to do damage to the left. The question is whether they'll abide the same Republican Party that set the bailouts in motion to begin with -- after the election.
Right now, the fact that the Tea Party is willing to hate on the GOP Congressional leadership but ultimately be their most enthusiastic foot soldiers is testament to the fact of the Republican Party's powerlessness on Capitol Hill. The party may suck, the reasoning goes, but that's irrelevant now because it can't actually shape policy. There is only one question in this election, and that is whether Congress can put the breaks on the left's unfettered rule. And if the GOP gets some measure of influence back, will it change?