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01.26.10

The Tea Party vs. the GOP

Fired up after Scott Brown's win, Tea Party candidates across the country are mounting challenges to top Republican recruits. Does this help or hurt the GOP?

For Republicans, the most encouraging thing about Scott Brown’s victory is the collaboration of the Tea Party movement with the orthodox GOP hierarchy it usually scorns. Now the Republicans—already expecting substantial gains in the House in the midterm elections—see taking control in November as a real possibility, with the gain of 40 seats they would need as attainable.

The Tea Party movement does offer Republicans a real chance, but it also presents risks that are only beginning to surface.

In Virginia’s 5th District, Laurence Verga said, “I believe the Republican Party has become the Democratic Party lite.”

For one thing, without the special incentive of killing President Obama’s health-care legislation, it is hard to imagine much Tea Party enthusiasm for other candidates like Brown, whose record showed opposition to tax cuts and support for Massachusetts’ own universal health-care law.

A more important dilemma: Instead of falling in behind GOP favorites, the Tea Partiers are increasingly running themselves in Republican primaries as insurgents. Running for Colorado’s 4th District seat against the candidate recruited by the National Republican Congressional Committee, Dean Madere says he wants to restore the Constitution by restoring power to the states. In Indiana, Phil Troyer denounces the 3rd District incumbent, Republican Mark Souder, over earmarks. In Florida’s 10th District, Eric Forcade, who wants to abolish the income tax, complains that Bill Young, his opponent and the former chairman of the Appropriations Committee, is not someone “who is going to be vocal and who is willing to fight, not just push a button but stand up there and pound the desk.” In California’s 45th District, Clayton Thibodeau challenges incumbent Mary Bono-Mack over energy legislation, saying energy is outside the province of the Commerce Clause.

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And even when they share fairly orthodox party views opposing Obama’s legislative agenda, candidates like Virginia’s Laurence Verga criticize the party whose nominations they seek. Verga said, “I believe the Republican Party has become the Democratic Party lite and has continued to grow government and tax Americans and just really represent special interests, and that’s why I believe we are having the economic meltdown that we are having right now.”

There is no doubt that some of these new-to-politics candidates will bring a lot of enthusiastic support from the Tea Party crowd and Glenn Beck’s 9/12 Project. Even so, some of them may have no chance at all, especially if they are challenging a popular incumbent Republican. But the ones who will matter to the party’s hopes are those who win nominations or come close in competitive districts.

The ones who come close may be the greatest threat to their party. Not having spent years at politics, they have not been brought up to close ranks behind a primary winner. Some will go off and sulk, and their followers will stay home on Election Day. In some states, losers can turn around and run as an independent, splitting the vote and enabling a Democrat to win with a minority of the vote. Verga said that if state Sen. Robert Hurd wins despite attacks from other candidates over his votes for tax increases in the Virginia legislature, there will be at least one independent candidate. Verga said he would not run as an independent himself, but others would, and that might re-elect 5th District freshman Democratic Rep. Tom Perriello.

Third-party candidacies may not come only from Tea Party candidates. Staten Island’s Mike Grimm said he has some contacts in the movement, but the former FBI agent is a particular favorite of New York’s Conservative Party, whose Doug Hoffman almost won last year in the 23rd district. Grimm, who attacks the administration over terrorism and the cap and trade legislation, said he would run on the Conservative line even if he lost the Republican nomination. He said of the Republicans, “I think they need to step up and admit that they had lost their way. They started spending money like liberals and not being true to their values.”

Michael Long, chairman of New York’s Conservative Party for 21 years, has no hesitation about running candidates against Republicans. In an interview with The Daily Beast, he said, “The best of all worlds for us is to have a united front with a conservative Republican, and I work toward that to try to make that happen first. I tried to do that with the Hoffman race, OK, in the 23rd. The Republicans didn’t listen…. But that doesn’t mean, if they won’t run a valid, moderately conservative candidate, and we have the opportunity to run a conservative, we will run a conservative over a liberal Republican.”

He will have plenty of opportunities. Even before the Massachusetts result, the changing political atmosphere meant “my phone is going off the hook where people want to come in and talk to me about possibly running for office," Long said. "There are more people knocking on the door than I have ever had before.” 

Most independent candidacies will develop after primaries, but in Tennessee’s newly open 8th District—left vacant when incumbent Democratic Rep. John Tanner decided to retire and which Republicans hope to capture—Donn Janes is already running as an independent. He's complaining that the NRCC stacked the deck against him when it promoted Steve Fincher. Janes said he would not be taking votes especially from the Republican in the fall, but would appeal to the district’s conservative voters regardless of party.

He relies on a basic conservative political theory—that the country is really conservative, and that conservatives turn out for real conservative candidates but stay home when they don’t have the option. James Bopp, Republican national committeeman from Indiana, said, “Republicans are in a position in which 40 percent of American people are conservative, and many moderates agree with conservatives on various issues, like opposition to Obama’s health-care plan. And so what we have to do is be faithful to our own views and act like it.”

Bopp is the author of a resolution that may come up at the RNC meeting (beginning this Wednesday) to deny party funds to insufficiently conservative candidates. “We no longer have the luxury of thinking that people will believe we are conservative unless we act like it,” he explained.

Even the successful candidates from the right will not be an unalloyed blessing for the party. They will have grass-roots momentum going into the general election and will be able to raise money nationally, something the NRCC has little of these days. But sometimes, especially in competitive districts, the very moderation of the candidate they oppose that kept the seat in Republican hands. Bono-Mack’s district, for example, has been getting gradually more Democratic, and Thibodeau might be unable to hold it for the Republicans if he defeated her. So the wave of anger that brought down Martha Coakley (the Bill Buckner of Bay State politics) may take the Republicans to the very edge of control—and then yank them back.

Adam Clymer is a former Chief Washington Correspondent of the New York Times and author of Edward M. Kennedy: A Biography.