The moment Matt Bevin was shown the door back to private life in Kentucky Tuesday night, you could hear liberal analysts’ hands rub together in glee. Their night had come, another milepost on the road toward the extinction of the dreaded Tea Party.
How else to explain Mitch McConnell’s win, and the failure of specific tea party candidates to make the Senate runoff in Georgia? Surely the insurgency is dying. Surely the fires of Tea Party discontent are dwindling as the batons are passed back to the establishment figures who will occasionally work with, and even vote like— Democrats.
Well, hit the pause button on that.
As Kurt Schlichter wisely observed here in March, “if the conservative insurgency has been crushed, why was Mitch McConnell walking around onstage at CPAC with a musket?” The Tea Party’s greatest claim to victory is that its values have been absorbed into the bloodstream of the Republican party itself. What is dwindling is the need to firmly stamp some candidates as “Tea Party” and others as something else.
Are there still cafeteria conservatives in the GOP, picking and choosing the items they wish to run on? Certainly. The RINO is not yet an extinct species. But there have been no Republican winners this primary season offering themselves up as proud centrists, establishment heroes or Rockefeller retreads. From Kentucky’s McConnell to John Cornyn in my state of Texas to various House races featuring incumbents surviving Tea Party challengers, the results did not reveal distaste for the grassroots approach. What was on display was a class of incumbents who have been shown the new stripes on the playing field.
To their credit, they were able to show a sufficient number of Tea Party voters that they have heard the cries from the conservative base and are willing to listen.
There remains the possibility that we are all being hosed. It is one thing to sound conservative on the campaign trail, and wholly another to actually govern in that fashion. But when Mitch McConnell told his state (and the nation) that he would do “better as offensive coordinator (Senate Majority Leader) than defensive coordinator,” an understandable reply was: “You’d better.”
While some conservative voters are willing to take a leap of faith with familiar names who profess enlightenment, the Tea Party purists remain skeptical, and they are not to be blamed. The Kentuckians who voted for Bevin had simply had it up to their eyeballs with a status quo featuring Republicans unwilling to stand up to Obama-era expansionism. They consider fresh faces the only option, and that is not unreasonable.
But the lesson is: not every Tea Party candidate brings the brilliance, skill and message discipline of Ted Cruz. Please remember that America’s strongest Tea Party icon did not take out an entrenched incumbent to reach the Senate. He captured an open seat, and thus the hearts of conservatives tired of decades of Republican meekness. If the Tea Party phenomenon is at such an ebb, why is its biggest star the most powerful force in Washington?
When Tea Party candidates lose, sometimes it’s due to flaws other than ideology. Some are not the crispest campaigners. Some do not have the sharpest staffs. Sometimes they say wacky things and hang themselves.
None of those events constitute a narrative of a Tea Party in decline.
FreedomWorks President Matt Kibbe has it precisely right: “Everybody runs like a Tea Party candidate now,” he observed. “Everybody is running against Obamacare and against overspending in Washington. It wasn’t always like that with the Republican establishment. I don’t even recognize McConnell from where he was a few years ago.”
Precisely. That is the power of the Tea Party, this movement supposedly on the ropes. If not as many easily stampable “Tea Party” candidates are rocketing up the ladders of power, their views surely are, newly embraced by some incumbents who recognize that the old Republican party is dead, or needs to be.
The strength of the Tea Party was never going to be measured by how many of its candidates did battle against the Republican party; its success is confirmed by the extent of its thorough infiltration of the party, moving it to the right by championing consistent, unapologetic conservatism— which is all the Tea Party has ever been.