(Michael Tanner/Cato Institute) – At first glance, it seemed a silly headline even by the standards of MSNBC: “Can the GOP Survive a Tea Party Takeover?”
Of course, the story was yet another in the narrative that has been eagerly embraced by both the mainstream media and desperate Democrats: “Extreme” candidates who are associated with the tea-party movement are dooming Republicans to defeat this fall. If only the Republicans had nominated more moderate, “go along to get along” candidates, who supported tax increases and the health-care bill — why, they might even manage a ten-point lead in the Gallup generic ballot.
In fact, Republicans do have a ten-point generic-ballot lead, the biggest GOP lead in the history of Gallup’s tracking poll.
Has anyone actually looked at those races featuring “tea-party candidates?” In Kentucky, Rand Paul has been the poster boy for tea-party Republicans. The media has wrung its hands and worried mightily about how his primary victory could cost Republicans a competitive Senate seat. However, the most recent Rasmussen poll shows Paul with a 9-point lead. With only two exceptions, he has led in every poll taken in the three months since his nomination. His opponent has not gotten above 42 percent in the polls all summer.
There’s a reason why the tea-party Republicans had to run against their own party leadership.
In Colorado, Ken Buck, another tea-party favorite, won the GOP Senate nomination, prompting more crocodile tears from the media. Despite the implosion of the Colorado Republican party, Buck is leading his opponent, incumbent Democratic senator Michael Bennett, by four to nine points and is pushing 50 percent in recent polls. The defeat of incumbent Utah senator Bob Bennett was met with wailing and the gnashing of teeth among D.C. pundits. The GOP nominee, Mike Lee, holds a 25-point lead. And, most recently, with challenger Joe Miller apparently upsetting Republican senator Lisa Murkowski in Alaska, the media is wondering whether there is now another Democratic “opportunity.” Apparently, not much of one: Miller leads his Democratic opponent 47—39 in the only post-primary poll.
Meanwhile in Florida, Rick Scott’s insurgent victory in the gubernatorial primary was trumpeted as great news for Democratic candidate Alex Sink. No doubt Scott carries some baggage, but he leads by three points in Rasmussen’s latest poll. At the same time, tea-party favorite Marco Rubio has retaken the lead in his three-way race for Florida’s Senate seat.
Similar results can be found in House races across the country: Supposedly “extreme” Republicans are leading in race after race.
Only in Nevada, where Senate majority leader Harry Reid has climbed back into a tie with Sharron Angle, is the media’s narrative even close to true. But one has to ask how different would things be if a more establishment candidate such as Sue Lowden had won the Republican primary. Angle has been nothing if not controversial, but Lowden was hardly gaffe-free. (Remember the “pay your doctor with a chicken” flap?) After Reid spent $3 million on negative advertising, voters would likely have thought that any Republican candidate was slightly to the right of Attila the Hun. Despite this, Reid is still far from safe.
In the real world, as opposed to the one inhabited by most of the media, this new breed of anti-spending, pro-Constitution, limited-government candidates does not appear to be dragging Republicans to defeat.
But looked at another way, the question asked by that MSNBC headline is indeed relevant. If by “GOP” one means the party establishment that has controlled Congress and the national party since at least the Bush era, this group of insurgent candidates represents a significant threat. There’s a reason why the tea-party Republicans had to run against their own party leadership.
Just look at where the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) and its House counterpart put their muscle. While it was understandable that the NRSC would stick with incumbents like Murkowski and Bennett, it also backed Trey Greyson in Kentucky, Jane Norton in Colorado, and Lowden in Nevada, and stood with Charlie Crist in Florida right up to the moment that he ditched the party. Even now, NRSC chairman John Cornyn has dispatched attorneys to Alaska to help Murkowski with her potential recount against Miller — even as Murkowski explores her options for a third-party run.
After all, a Senate full of Pauls, Angles, Millers, Rubios, and others of that mindset would be a very different place. For someone like Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, who based his last reelection campaign on all the pork he had brought home to Kentucky, the thought of Rand Paul joining him in the Senate must be uncomfortable.
The House Republican leadership can’t feel any more secure. Minority whip Eric Cantor has already suggested that the GOP leadership may jettison its moratorium on earmarks next year. But dozens of new anti-spending Republicans will be elected this November. Will they stand for that sort of Republican backsliding?
Republicans claim that they have learned the lesson of their defeats in 2006 and 2008. They say that they are now firmly committed to limited-government principles. This new breed of candidate intends to hold them to that — and that is making the Washington establishment very uncomfortable.
(Michael Tanner is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and author of Leviathan on the Right: How Big-Government Conservatism Brought Down the Republican Revolution.)