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.