Tea party activists are celebrating the conservative surge which captured the House of Representatives for the GOP on November 2. And rightly so: Many of the newly elected representatives will owe their Washington careers to the tea party, through either direct support, or by simply benefiting from the tea party-driven national wave. And with redistricting on the horizon, the significance of the sweep in state legislatures and governorships by conservative candidates cannot be overstated.
However, on the U.S. Senate side, the tea party’s efforts produced murkier, more problematic results.
To be sure, Marco Rubio in Florida and Rand Paul in Kentucky prevailed handsomely. And Pat Toomey managed to squeak out a win in Pennsylvania. But just as many tea party favorites fell short of clinching a Senate seat – far shorter than they should have given the favorable political winds at their back.
Christine O’Donnell went down hard in Delaware. In West Virginia, John Raese didn’t even come close. As of this writing, it appears likely that Tea Party favorite Joe Miller will lose in Alaska. And in Nevada, Harry Reid successfully - and with plenty of room to spare - staved off the challenge from tea partier Sharron Angle.
Given the strength and popular support of the tea party movement, failure to make greater conservative gains in the Senate surely is a sign of the weakness of some of the candidates themselves. And sure enough, the tea partiers who lost were often prone to rookie mistakes and shared some propensity for verbal gaffes and/or embarrassing pasts. (It goes without saying that if you have to open one of your campaign commercials with “I’m not a witch,” you have already lost the argument, and the race.)
The lesson should be clear: It is not in itself sufficient for tea party candidates to be ideologically pure. It is also necessary that they be credible, stable candidates. Being for limited, constitutional government is a fine and noble thing; being astute enough to get elected on such a platform, and thus be in a position to do something about it, is something else entirely.
It is a lesson that should be taken to heart, because failure to capture the Senate, or at least make greater gains, will almost surely complicate, and possibly delay by many years, any serious attempt to repeal Obamacare. And the longer Obamacare is on the books, and the more of its regulations, mandates and taxes go into effect, the harder it will be to ever dispatch. Even conservatives in control of the both chambers and the White House (a constellation at least two years away, and by no means assured even then) would find it a Sisyphean task to unmake a trillion dollar entitlement fully entangled in our economic and political infrastructure.
It is an especial failure for conservatives that Harry Reid, the face of Obamacare in the Senate and the man without whom it would not be law today, survived November 2. His defeat would have been a tremendous psychological blow to one-time and future supporters of the president’s health care legislation. That Reid survived comfortably, even though he had consistently trailed in the polls in the preceding week, is a troubling sign of either pollster overestimation of conservative strength (which rarely happens), or the existence of widespread malfeasance, or both. Either way, constitutionalists will pay dearly for not having taken the Nevada race as seriously as Reid’s union allies, who pulled out all the stops to save him.
None of this is to gainsay the deep and broad successes of the still-young tea party movement. Conservatives can rightly argue that their sweep of the House was of historic proportions, representing a large-scale repudiation of Obama and his policies. Liberals, on the other hand, may argue that, given the political climate, conservatives could and should have captured 100 House seats instead of 60, and have retaken the Senate as well.
They may both be right.