As the midterm elections rapidly approach and Tea Party candidates continue to gain ground in primary battles across the country, the Republican establishment is beginning to feel the sand shift beneath their feet. Rather than resigning themselves to irrelevancy however, key leaders within the GOP establishment are determined to find a way to translate Tea Party enthusiasm into further entrenchment of the Republican status quo.
The relationship between the Tea Party Patriots and the GOP has been tenuous since the movement began over a year ago. More than anti-Left or anti-Liberal, the primary motivating spirit behind the Tea Party movement has been anti-incumbent, anti-Washington, anti-establishment. This spells bad news for everyone inside the Beltway regardless of party affiliation. Initially, the Republican response to the Tea Party phenomenon was to pay lip service to the movement while working behind the scenes to ensure the continued hegemony of the GOP establishment. However, this tactic has not proven very successful, as evidenced by recent primary upsets in six states including Florida and Delaware.
Having gone on the record with sharp criticisms of prominent Tea Party candidates during the run-up to (and in some cases, the aftermath of) these primaries, prominent members of the GOP establishment now find themselves in the awkward position of trying to dispel accusations that they are undermining the movement while simultaneously trying to figure out a way to leverage Tea Party successes to the advantage of the Republican power-base in Washington. Karl Rove, while declaring adamantly that he is not an "establishment" Republican, attempted to split hairs between his role as a GOP operative and a political analyst when pressed on his opinion of Delaware Republican primary winner Christine O'Donnell. Trent Lott, former Senate Majority Leader and current K Street lobbyist, insists that there is no room in Washington for "a lot of Jim DeMint disciples" and that the GOP establishment must "co-opt" any Tea Party candidates who manage to actually win races and make it to Washington.
This, sadly, is the way it's always been done in Washington, and it's a trap into which even the most conscientious, idealistic political newcomer can easily fall. They come to our nation's capital, electoral mandate in hand, full of big ideas and dreams for their constituents back home, only to find themselves caught in the web of establishment interests on the Hill. Campaign contributions, fancy dinners, box seats, all expense paid trips – this has been the medium of exchange for years in the Federal City. It is all very alluring. And it's precisely why the voters are clamoring for a change.
Instead of embracing the American people's call for authentic change and welcoming the Tea Party's influence, the GOP establishment appears hell bent on doing business the old fashioned way. In the meantime, the likes of Rove and Lott are watching and waiting to see if America's first Tea Party candidates have what it takes to prevail against the Democrats in a general election. A bigger issue, however, is whether the Tea Party's electoral vanguard has the character and fortitude to stick to its ideals and resist the lure of being co-opted by the GOP establishment. For voters across the country who are sick of politics as usual in America, this is the million dollar question.