05/29/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Tea Party Excess?

A question which is causing no small degree of fear among Republican leaders in Washington right now is whether the Tea Parties are going to turn out to be a good thing or a bad thing for the Republican Party. Republican Party wonks are torn between welcoming the enthusiasm the Tea Party folks bring into their "big tent," all the while worrying that this very vocal group is going to be dictating what is and what is not acceptable in Republicanism from this point on. Which, the seasoned politicians and party hacks know, may prove to provoke a backlash among independent voters, and lead to losing elections Republicans should have won.

Call it the old "you sow the wind, you reap the whirlwind" problem. So far, Republicans appear willing to walk this tightrope, in anticipation of gaining all those lovely motivated voters -- but the saner heads among Republican officeholders are privately planning to give the Tea Parties only early lip service (in hopes of winning the primaries), and then quickly tacking away from them after the primaries are over (in hopes of winning the general elections). How this strategy plays out will be the most interesting dynamic in this year's midterms. And Democrats should do everything they can to exploit this schism in Republicanland.

The Tea Party movement is precisely that -- a movement. It is not a centralized party or group, and it really has no easily-identifiable spokesperson, other than Sarah Palin, who (to be charitable) is not exactly known for her ability of being able to provide details on issues or policies. Like any movement, it welcomes just about everyone into its ranks who agrees on a few basic things, and is actually comprised of several smaller entities, some of whom aren't exactly on the same page when it comes to strategy. Palin herself provided an ironic display of the disjointed nature of the movement (even though the media completely missed this irony) last week, when in the same day she appeared at a rally for John McCain (and against his Tea-Party-type primary opponent), and then later appeared over the state line at a pro-Tea-Party rally in Harry Reid's hometown. Palin is part of the Republican Party who strongly believes the Tea Parties can be a good thing for Republicans, if the Tea Partiers can be welcomed in and then directed to support mainstream Republican candidates (or "co-opted," in other words).

Voices on the Left delight in ridiculing the Tea Partiers, or painting the entire movement with a wide racist brush. This is due to the nature of the movement, where anybody is welcome. There is indeed a certain racist element within Tea Party rallies, as there is a certain element of wackadoodle-ism. But this sort of thing happens in any movement, from the Left or the Right (although the specific nature of the wackadoodleness does indeed change as you move on the political spectrum).

Now, I'm not saying the Tea Party wackadoodles shouldn't be exposed by the Left, in an attempt to shine the full glare of the media spotlight on the lunacy and nastiness being openly displayed by some Tea Partiers. But the Left itself shouldn't get complacent in the idea that this is purely a fringe group of crazy folks whose spelling skills (much less political philosophy) leave much to be desired. Because, while the lunatics get a lot of attention, it doesn't mean that the movement itself is solely comprised of such gadflies.

One faction of the Tea Party folks may very soon wrest control of a significant slice of the Republicans' party machinery away from the "old guard" Washington-insider crowd who has been running it. They are concentrating on what can only be called a bottom-up takeover of the party structure itself. Tea Party folks are snapping up local party precinct chairs, which are largely thankless party jobs taken by people absolutely committed to the party's cause. But there are a lot of them which are empty, or easily taken over. And these precinct chairs are the ones who get together to decide the state party's strategies, and (eventually) the national party's strategies as well. Not to mention which candidates to support. If the Tea Partiers fill enough of these positions, they will gain control of the Republican Party from within. Which is part of the fear, mentioned earlier, that the old guard Republicans in Washington have -- all of a sudden, their own cushy party jobs may be put at risk, as well as control of the entire party itself.

But that's more of a long-term threat to Republican party hacks. The more immediate question is what will happen in this year's midterm elections. The Tea Partiers, so far, have put up some candidates for some very interesting Republican primary races. Since they're not a national, centrally-controlled organization, this isn't true everywhere. And these races will likely play out differently in different parts of the country, especially considering which candidates actually decide to fully embrace the Tea Party label in their races. The quality of candidates varies, in other words, for both mainstream Republicans and Tea Party challengers, making it difficult to create sweeping statements about either side in this internecine struggle.

There are a few possible outcomes to having a Tea Party challenger in a Republican primary race. The Tea Partier could win the nomination, when running against someone the Republican Party thinks is the best candidate. This may happen in Florida, where Charlie Crist (once thought a shoo-in) may lose his primary race to Marco Rubio, the Tea Party upstart. It could also happen in Kentucky, which would be particularly embarassing for the Republican Party, because the party candidate was hand-picked by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and also because the Tea Party upstart is Ron Paul's son.

Of course, in other races, the Tea Party candidate could lose, to Republicans who have been in Washington for decades. John McCain springs to mind as someone who may defeat a surprisingly strong Tea Party primary challenger. This is where things get interesting, because (in states which allow it) the Tea Party candidate, after losing a Republican primary, could choose to run in the general election as a third-party (or Independent) candidate. Even in states where the Tea Party candidate wins the primary, the Republican could choose to go this route as well, and could even win in a general election as such (as Joe Lieberman did over on the Democratic side of things).

If there is no Tea Party candidate in the general election (in states which bar candidates who have run in a primary from changing their party to run as an Independent, for instance, or a Tea Partier who just decides not to run in the general election), it remains to be seen whether the Tea Partiers will turn out and reliably vote Republican. They may stay home instead (they likely won't be voting Democratic, no matter what happens), particularly if the Tea Party candidate lost a nasty primary race to a mainstream Republican. But that's probably overly-optimistic. Love them or hate them, you've got to at least allow that they do have a lot of enthusiasm, and that enthusiasm will likely translate to a big turnout at the polls.

The whole political calculus for a general election is a lot different than for a primary. And this is where Democrats could actually benefit from the Tea Party movement. Because if the Tea Party decides to go the third-party candidacy route, it could provide the margin of victory in races that otherwise would likely have been won by Republicans. Third parties split the vote of whatever major party they would normally be voting for. It's likely, for instance, that Bill Clinton never would have won his first presidential term without the presence of H. Ross Perot in the race. And it may be the only way Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid keeps his job this year (polls show him losing in a two-way race, but edging out a slim victory in a three-way race with a Tea Party candidate).

There's no guarantee of any of this, of course. Lieberman won his last race, after all, and not the Republican candidate. But the general strategy for any political candidate is to move towards your base in the primaries, and towards the center in the general election. Most elections these days are won by the independent vote in the middle, but the problem is that independents don't vote in primaries. Nobody much votes in primaries, for that matter (a 15 percent primary turnout is considered huge in some states). The ones who do are the loyal, committed base of the party.

Which leaves Republicans in a bind. Because the further they tack towards the Tea Parties in the primary season, the further they have tied themselves to the fortunes of the group. And defined themselves as supporting the group's goals. At the same time, the more the Tea Partiers get unruly and downright hateful at their rallies, the more it scares those independent voters who (in a normal year) would likely vote Republican. Independents, almost by definition, are wary of extremists of any stripe. Remember the "soccer moms" from elections past? Soccer moms think twice about aligning themselves with people who are seen as racist, and they are really driven away by violence or threats of violence. Which is why the Left is smart to continue shining the spotlight on such instances -- which even the mainstream media (who has, largely, been much more respectful of the Tea Partiers than they ever have been to movements coming from the Left, I might add) is now regularly pointing out when they cover Tea Party rallies.

Come the general election, many mainstream Republican candidates will likely attempt to drop the Tea Parties like a hot potato, but this may prove a bit more difficult than they think. Democratic candidates should try to show the public any radical statements made by Republicans to Tea Party groups during the primary season, because Republicans will likely be trying to distance themselves from such rhetoric after the primaries are behind them. But, even if Republicans are successful at such distancing, it may lead to Tea Party voter disillusionment by the general election.

This is the tightrope Republicans will have to walk this year. Convince enough moderates and independents that they aren't all that radical, while convincing the Tea Partiers that they are indeed just that radical.

Throughout it all, the more radical the Tea Party itself gets, the better it will likely be for Democrats in the future, even if they do lose seats this year. The more the Tea Party marginalizes its own movement by allowing racists and hatemongering a platform, the less effective it will prove to ultimately be. And if it leads to even one spectacular instance of violence (or "domestic terrorism" if you will), then the Tea Party movement will likely collapse and have to go through a rebirth phase (with a different label, most likely). But even in the absence of such a tragedy, the saner heads in the Republican Party are right to wonder whether this is going to wind up being a good thing for the party or not. From within or without, the Republican Party itself may become defined by the rigorous standards of the core Tea Party movement. And while that may be good news for them in the primaries -- and possibly even in this year's general elections -- it may also guarantee that the party shrinks in appeal to the general public for years to come.

What may determine the answer to the question of whether the Tea Parties are a good thing or bad for the Republican Party is how much they manage to appeal to independents and moderates. Independents will likely be the more reachable group, since a lot of them feel disillusioned by both parties. But "moderate" is not exactly the Tea Party's strong point, meaning they may further drive what used to be "moderate Republicans" (yes, such a species of voter does indeed exist) away from the party, possibly for a long time to come. Which is why the Republicans in Washington (those who know how to broaden their appeal in order to win elections) are so scared of the movement, and why they're downright terrified of saying anything negative about it (lest they themselves be ousted by the mob).

Which all adds up to a fascinating election season, no matter who comes out on top. Because this fight for the soul of the Republican Party may have implications which reverberate for a lot more election cycles to come.


Chris Weigant blogs at:

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