A lot of lefties are in a state of high agitation today about a possible Tea Party takeover of the country; the word "fascism" gets thrown around with alarming frequency. Look, I get it. Sharron Angle is scarier than Halloween in the East Village. There’s also some short-term incentive to focusing on Tea Party gains: hits to websites go up and nationalizing the midterms around faux-witch Christine O’Donnell is perhaps the best game Democrats have going. But people—get a grip!
Yes, the Tea Party has become a potent force on the right—pulling the Republican Party rightward into the insane asylum. But in many cases, it’s also pulling the GOP downward, towards losses that could have been pickups. The inordinate focus on the Tea Party’s ascendency is obscuring other dynamics in this election cycle: normal Republican victories, intra-GOP fights, surprising Democratic gains and the phenomenon of TINOs (Tea Party in Name Only). Here are four dynamics I’m watching today to get a sense of how well the Tea Party will really do and what it all means going forward:
Strength of Protest Votes: As Kate Zernicke of the New York Times noted, there are sixty-seven Tea Party candidates running for the House in safe Democratic districts (out of her tally of 138 total Tea Party candidates). These include some long-long-long shots: Tea Partier Charles Lollar running in Maryland’s 5th district, for example, doesn’t have a prayer against Democratic majority leader Steny Hoyer, but his bid has attracted attention nonetheless. Why? Lollar is an African-American Tea Partyer, which is partly why the GOP and Tea Party have dubbed him the "Maryland Miracle." And they’re right—a Lollar victory would be a miracle indeed (Hoyer is leading by 33 percentage points in a Democratic stronghold). But how well will Lollar—and other Tea Party protest candidates—do compared to past non-Tea candidates? That’s one measure of the Tea Party’s ability to capture (or repel) frustrated voters.
Non-Tea GOP Wins: This is a huge category that hasn’t received nearly enough attention. Of the 100 Democratic House seats in play, only about half (fifty-one) have a candidate who’s affiliated with the Tea Party. In many of those cases, the Tea Party affiliation is weak to nominal (see next point). Moreover, at least thirteen of these Tea Party candidates are running in districts that are leaning Democratic. On Wednesday then, it’s highly possible that the majority of the GOP’s House pickups will be from Republican candidates with no Tea Party affiliation. A good example: Martha Roby in Alabama’s 2nd is trying to unseat Democrat Bobby Bright, in a district that went for McCain by twenty-six points in 2008. Roby spouts all the talking points about small government and lower taxes, but that’s normal for all Republicans. More to the point, in the primary she beat the notorious Tea Partier Rick Barber, who ran an ad calling on his supporters to "gather your armies." Watch for non-Tea candidates like Roby when the results come in—you might be surprised (and dismayed) at how well ordinary Republicans are doing.
TINOs (Tea Party In Name Only): One problem I have with Zernicke’s otherwise admirable coverage is that it inflates the number of Tea Party candidates by counting endorsements from FreedomWorks or speaking gigs at local Tea Party groups as evidence of Tea Party affiliation. In this election cycle—it would be foolish (or brave!) for any Republican to utterly dismiss the Tea Party—and so lip service is often paid. But the number of House and Senate candidates who owe their nomination and political strength largely to the Tea Party is much, much smaller. Take Wisconsin GOP Senate candidate Ron Johnson, for example. Poised to knock off Russ Feingold, Johnson is a multimillionaire who spent more than $4 million of his own cash in the primary. He’s been labeled a Tea Party candidate, but some Wisconsin Tea Party groups like the Rock River Patriots declined to support him, and Tim Dake, head of the GrandSons of Liberty told the CSM in September, "We feel we don’t really know him at this point." Another example of a TINO: Steve Chabot, running against Democrat Steve Driehaus in Ohio’s 1st district. Chabot has cultivated the Tea Party, but he first won the seat in 1994 and held the seat until 2008. However much Tea Party noise Chabot makes, he’s GOP establishment pure and simple. The big question post-election is whether or not the Tea Party’s penchant for revolution will lead them to turn against folks like Johnson and Chabot—consummate insiders who are spouting outsider talk.
Weak Tea: These are seats where the Tea Party beat an establishment GOP candidate—and have eroded Republican chances. Christine O’Donnell in Delaware is the classic example. But the same dynamic is at work in Delaware’s Congressional district, where Tea Partier Glen Urquhart beat establishment choice Michele Rollins. Urquhart is down by about ten percentage points to Democrat John Carney, who will likely pick up the seat currently held by loser Republican Mike Castle. Of course, it’s always tough to play what-if. Maybe Rollins would have been just as lame a candidate? But particularly in moderate states like Delaware, New Jersey, etc. this is a dynamic worth noting—down to the small but crucial details. In New Jersey’s 6th district, for example, Tea Partiers nominated Anna Little over Diane Gooch by just eighty-four votes, and now it looks like Little will lose to Democrat Frank Pallone. It’s a liberal district, so who knows if Gooch had a chance—but one advantage she did have that Little does not: Gooch is a multimillionaire who would have self-funded to combat Pallone’s formidable war chest.
I’ll be keeping tabs on these factors and races all day on Twitter (@richardkimnyc) and writing post-election. So stay tuned!