By Elvin Lim
For Republicans to take over 10 seats to gain control of the Senate, 2010 Republican voters must not see themselves as voting the Bush/Rove Republicans (who were kicked out in 2006 and 2008) back in, but for a new type of Republican newly infused with Tea Party sentiments. The question then is, can the Tea Party be synergistically incorporated into the Republican electoral machine?
There is no doubt that the Tea Party movement has been a force to reckon with this primary season. Consider the fact that there are 37 seats in the Senate up for election this year, 18 of which are currently occupied by Republican incumbents. Of this 18, seven candidates backed by the National Republican Senatorial Committee (two of whom, Bennett and Murkowski, are incumbent senators) have lost to Tea Party candidates in the Republican primaries: Lee (UT), Miller (AL), Buck (CO), Angle (NV), Paul (KY), O’Donnell (DE), Rubio (FL). We have not seen the Tea Party movement and its influence at a higher point than where it is today.
This has been reflected in the rising fortunes of the movement’s star. Of the 36 primary races the most prominent Tea Party personality, Sarah Palin, has supported, 25 have been victorious. This King-maker is newly revisiting the idea of making herself King in 2012, when she re-opened opened the doors to speculation that she would run in 2012 when she visited Iowa last week. Right now, Palin’s future looks good. But this could be because we are just done with primary season, where the most conservative also tend to be the most likely to turn-out. Check back again after November, and things could be looking very different. What is clear is the Tea Party movement is ideologically committed to bottom-up, grassroots politics. As a result, it is even more in need of a unifying figure than previous third party movements (almost all of which coalesced around charismatic figures like Theodore Roosevelt or Strom Thurmond).
Whatever happens this November will dramatically affect the composition of the Republican party and its thrust in 2012. Here are the best and worst case scenarios for the Tea partiers.
Best case: If Christine O’Donnell wins in Delaware, Sarah Palin’s fortunes will be looking even brighter for 2012 (for she would have repudiated the prediction of the Cardinal of the Republican establishment, Karl Rove, who has publicly criticized O’Donnell’s candidacy.) If she doesn’t win, establishment candidates will do better. (Mitt Romney, ever the opportunist covering his bases, sent an endorsement and a maximum contribution of $5,000 to the O’Donnell campaign the day after her victory.)
Worst case: Lisa Murkowski, competing as a write-in candidate in Alaska could keep Joe Miller from winning. Miller only beat Murkowski by 1,600 votes in the primary, so doing so was by no means a conclusive test of electability come November. If Miller and Murkowski end up splitting the Republican vote and giving the election to Democrat Scott McAdams in Palin’s own backyward, civil war could erupt in the Republican party because the Tea Party movement would no longer be credited for bringing energy to the party, but dark matter.
What Palin and the Tea Party movement have done, however, is shake up the Republican party’s modus operandi of typically always having an heir-apparent waiting in line. The GOP is going to be much less orderly in the years to come because the mavericks have infiltrated, and are now reconstituting its soul. What is undeniable is that 4 million more Republicans turned out than Democrats did in this year’s primary contests (and this is the highest Republican turn-out since the 70s), so the complexion of these primary results will permeate at least some of the general election results.
Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. Read Lim’s previous OUPblogs here.