Ky. Voices: Tea Party alive and kicking moderates out of the GOP

November 11, 2012 

Ronald P. Formisano is a University of Kentucky history professor and author of The Tea Party: A Brief History (Johns Hopkins)

Once again, as in 2010, the Tea Party is coming in for criticism for costing the Republican Party U.S. Senate races they had been favored to win. Only this time there is more blame going the way of the party's far-right base. Its primary voters also forced the allegedly moderate Mitt Romney (now we'll never know) to take extreme positions during the Republican primaries that hurt him in the general election.

But do not count out the Tea Party. Far from dead or dying, it is very much alive and will continue to have an impact.

First, let's assess the damage. In a reprise of 2010, when Republican primary voters selected candidates who cost the party seats in Delaware, Colorado and Nevada (and in the latter missed knocking off Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid), on Tuesday the Tea Party's sway over the Republican base turned in repeat performances in Missouri, North Dakota and even very red Indiana.

In other Republican losses in Senate races, Tea Party influence played a minor but important role: in Wisconsin by contributing to a bitter Republican primary that left a potentially strong candidate, former governor Tommy Thompson, weakened; and in Maine, where a Tea Party primary challenge in part caused moderate Republican Olympia Snowe to resign and led to the loss of the seat to Independent Angus King, a former governor sure to vote with the Democrats in the Senate.

The state's Tea Party governor, Paul LePage, also contributed to that result with a radical agenda and crude style that alienated many in a state known for its civil discourse. But the departure of Snowe and the loss of the seat do not necessarily dismay many Tea Party rank and file purists, nor their "Astroturf" funders like billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch.

Indeed, they are continuing a process of eliminating moderate Republicans that has been going on for years if not decades. Witness the primary challenge in Utah to conservative Republican Orrin Hatch which he squeaked by to handily carry the general election. Hatch not conservative enough?

In Texas Tea Partyite Ted Cruz easily won an open seat, after defeating in the party primary an establishment conservative backed by none other than Gov. Rick Perry. Cruz will add ideological adrenaline to a Republican delegation in Congress, House and Senate, that is far more right-wing than any in history.

The Tea Party's influence appeared both in the 2012 Republican platform, the most reactionary ever, and in Romney's selection of Paul Ryan (a Koch brothers protégé) as his running mate. It appears in Kentucky where Mitch McConnell, facing re-election in 2014, appeared at a Tea Party rally with Sen. Rand Paul in August and then hired a Paul staffer to run his next campaign.

In Kansas, the Kochs' Americans for Prosperity, the Chamber of Commerce and anti-tax and anti-choice groups poured millions into a purge of Republican state senators who would not go along with "Teavangelical" Gov. Sam Brownback's agenda that was too extreme for even some conservative Republicans senators. They paid the price with primary defeats and replacement by Tea Partiers.

There is a fault line among Tea Party groups, however, that divides elected officials and elites from the rank and file, and it mirrors one that runs through the entire nation. The electorate at large is ideologically polarized to a degree, but not as much as the officials, activists and elite cadres of both parties.

While showboating Tea Party politicians call Obamacare "socialism" and want to repeal it wholesale, majorities of conservative Republicans want to keep certain provisions such as preventing insurance companies denying coverage for pre-existing conditions, and adding more prescription drug benefits. Even candidate Romney came around to agree with parts of the plan.

During the 2011 debt-ceiling debate when the Tea Party congressional caucus stubbornly risked an economic disaster, more of its base favored compromise. And we know very well how Tea Party activists shouted at congressmen to "Keep your government hands off my Medicare."

How this inherent contradiction ("cut their benefits, not ours") will play out remains to be seen. More immediate perhaps, and bludgeoned by the media this past week, is the demographic issue. Is the growing diversity of the nation, with white births now less than non-white, a demographic Sword of Damocles hanging over the Republican Party and especially the Tea Party, even whiter and older than the party at large?

Will the Tea Party base in the primaries prevent the Republicans from moving away from positions that have alienated Hispanics, African-Americans, Asians, young people and women, especially single women ?

A rising chorus of Republican officials and consultants now urges a shift to a Big Tent approach. But the Tea Party exists in part because of a fearful and too-often resentful reaction to a changing nation, to an America that has always been one of multiplicity but is now growing even more so.

Much of the hostility on the right to President Barack Obama is not racism (except among some birthers, Donald Trump anyone?) but because he symbolizes that change.

E pluribus Unum?

We'll see.

Reach Ron Formisano at ron.formisano@uky.edu.

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