Tea Party Lost in the Primaries But Keeps Fighting

The big story of this year's primaries is that the Tea Party is being creamed.

Meanwhile, the GOP's mainstream and Tea Party candidates are trying to paper over their differences, all the while keeping up what Democrats must find an entertaining brawl.

In the first round of elections, David Brat's double-digit upset over former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in Virginia's 7th district caused a great uproar. But that hoo-hah masked the fact that in Republican House and Senate primary races, incumbents have generally held their seats against Tea Party-supported candidates.

The Brookings Institution has been tracking the elections via The Primaries Project, a data-based effort led by Elaine Kamarck, Director of Brookings' Center for Effective Public Management, that tracks primary candidate according to their ideology. The data shows the election results have been devastating for the Tea Party: Through the June 24th elections, Tea Party candidates won a total of 24 elections, and lost 118. Only two Tea Party -backed candidates have beaten incumbents so far-- Dave Brat in Virginia's 7th District; and John Ratcliffe in the Texas 4th, who beat 91-year-old Ralph Hall in a runoff contest.

In a special election in Oklahoma to replace Senator Tom Coburn, James Lankford, the establishment candidate, used the support of local Tea Party groups to beat Tea Party candidate T.W. Shannon, who had the support of national Tea Party groups.

Cantor's loss to Brat left many who were paying only marginal attention to the elections with the impression that the Tea Party was cleaning up, says journalist Jill Lawrence -- an impression the media left largely undisturbed.

"The media were willing to see if (the Brat/Cantor results) would turn the tide," says Lawrence, who is working on the project with Kamarck. "The Tea Party is a small percentage of the electorate, but has a large voice, and a lot of influence on the Party, so even if it's losing, it's still influential."

How little the GOP wants to lose Tea Party voters was clear the day after Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran held onto his seat against Tea Party challenger Chris McDaniel. That same day, while McDaniel was refusing to concede, GOP chairman Reince Priebus published a piece in Red State, the closest thing the Tea Party has to a house organ, joining the old John Birch Society demand about abolishing the IRS.

Elsewhere, Tea Party candidates seemed to be doing what they could to erase differences with the mainstream GOP. In 2010, Ken Buck, former District Attorney of Weld County, Colorado, ran and lost for senator against Democrat Michael Bennet. At the time, he supported the long-standing John Birch Society demand that the 17th Amendment be repealed. This year he won the party nomination for the state's 4th District House seat, but the issue's not mentioned by his campaign.

The 17th Amendment, ratified in 1913, provides that senators be elected by popular vote; prior to it, senators were appointed by state legislatures. A call to Buck's campaign for comment was not returned.

Behind the irenic front, of course, independent mainstream Republican and Tea Party groups have been shelling each other with money in what are usually fairly routine elections.

The mainstream are outspending the Tea Party about two-to-one. POLITICO, for instance, reports that according to the Federal Election Commission, mainstream GOP groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and Karl Rove's American Crossroads organization, laid out about $23 million in independent expenditures supporting their candidates against some of the stronger Tea Party challengers. Meanwhile, says POLITICO, Tea Party groups like the Club for Growth and the Senate Conservative Fund spent about $12 million The full amounts spent are unknown at this writing.

The Establishment GOP isn't spending all that money to destroy the Tea Party. If it did, Priebus wouldn't have so openly pandered to it in his Red State piece. It's spending that money because the GOP Establishment wants to win in November and in 2016, and finds many Tea Party candidates to be somewhat less than ready for a world that's all beak and talons.

The day after he beat Eric Cantor for his House seat, for instance, David Brat appeared on Chuck Todd's MSNBC show Daily Rundown for what he obviously imagined would be a campaign ad. He was clearly unprepared to answer real questions, and made at least one major mistake.

Asked by Todd if wages should be higher, Brat said, "All I know is if you take the long-run graph over 200 years of the wage rate, it cannot differ from your nation's productivity. Right? So you can't make up wage rates."

Brat had made one of those mistakes all candidates make from time to time: He told the truth. It's bound to come back to haunt him in the general election.

That's because by his own estimate, American median family income should be much higher--hardly the mainstream GOP position. From 1975 to 2012, American productivity grew 80.4%, but median family income in the period barely budged, up only 11.4%, from $45,788 in 1975 to $51,017 in 2012. If wages had kept pace with productivity as Brat said they should, median family income today would be $83,571. A call to the Brat campaign for comment was not returned.

For its part, the Tea Party has hardly laid down its guns. In his daily Red State blog on June 25th, Erick Erickson threw out something no one would call an olive branch--the oft-raised prospect of a third party built out of the GOP base. This, because of what he, and many Tea Party activists, considers the GOP's lack of principle. In that spirit, he called the victorious Thad Cochran, Mississippi's long-time Senator, a marionette controlled by lobbyists and his own staffers. It probably wasn't incidental that this ran the same day Priebus called for abolishing the IRS.

Beyond the money and the rhetoric, of course, are the views of Republican voters. And according to their votes, they seem to share the mainstream GOP's view that the Tea Party and its elected officials have not helped the Republican cause by being so willing to die for principle, instead of governing through compromise.

That sentiment boiled over on Fox News on June 25th, when Neal Cavuto and Michelle Bachmann got into a shouting match about House Speaker John Boehner's lawsuit against President Obama over the President's use of executive orders, issued in the face of what the White House considers Republican obstruction. Cavuto, no Democratic cheerleader he, wound up calling the whole notion a "silly" waste of time.

So, a short-lived détente, at best.

Correction: This post mistakenly listed Jill Lawrence as leading the Primaries Project at Brookings. The project is being led by Elaine Kamarck, Director of Brookings' Center for Effective Public Management.