Tuesday’s Tea Party Mirage

Is Ron Paulism really sweeping the nation?


Ron Paulism, that frothy John Birch/Barry Goldwater blend of libertarian Tea Party wackery, continues to spread like a government-wasting virus. I don’t think its ultimate victims will be the government or the people, though: They’ll be Republicans resting their hopes on the Tea Party vote.

Last night’s decisive victory in Kentucky’s GOP Senate primary by the royal prince of the Tea Party, Rand Paul, was hailed by the victor as a “mandate for the Tea Party.” Winning candidates are practically obliged to spew such grandiloquent nonsense, of course. But the notion—echoed in the press today—that yesterday’s outcomes in four state’s primaries added up a “Tea Party victory” makes no sense at all. Not unless these folks were secretly working for Joe Sestak, the Pennsylvania Democrat who ousted Sen. Arlen Specter in the day’s most important contest, or Bill Halter, the Arkansas Democrat who forced a runoff with his state’s Republican Lite Senator, Blanche Lincoln. In both those cases, the more “liberal” and “big government” candidate prevailed.

The real theme yesterday, if there was one, was more anti-incumbent and anti-Washington than pro-Tea Party. Big surprises in a midterm!

(For a fuller discussion of what yesterday’s primaries meant, from pundits including yours truly, see The New York Times’ forum about yesterday’s results here.)

If the Paulers want a real victory, they’ll have to score it in November. Kentucky will indeed be the main test case of the Tea Party’s political potential. And Rand Paul will need all the help his daddy’s machine can give him. Few in the media noticed that there was also a Democratic primary in Kentucky yesterday—one that confounded the whole narrative about Democratic-leaning voters being “less motivated” to turn out in 2010 than their GOP counterparts. Both Kentucky Dems running for the open Senate seat—Attorney Jack Conway, who won narrowly, and Lt. Governor Daniel Mongiardo—both collected more votes than the triumphant Paul.

Conway, who’s young and handsome and thoroughly centrist, should give Paul a serious contest. It’ll be one big gauge of whether the Bircher resurgence is merely a phenomenon of the right, or whether candidates like Paul can convince the great middle of the electorate that they’re not flat-out, stark-raving crazy.

I’m betting that they can’t. And if Republicans anywhere—including Texas—are looking to the Tea Party as their new “base,” they’re going to be disappointed nationwide in November, and face even greater setbacks in future elections.

Nobody knows how many folks there are whose politics qualify as “Tea Party,” but we do know that it’s a narrow and shrinking demographic: white, male, older. And it’s not a “movement” that can replace the Republicans’ old Christian conservative base as a vote-getting machine. One of the GOP’s secrets to success, from Reagan to Bush, was the way the party deployed its already-organized evangelical megachurchers to do the party’s grassroots grunt work. The Tea Party can’t match the built-in organizational power of the Christian Right. On election day, it won’t deliver votes with nearly the same efficiency. And there are fewer Tea Partiers than evangelicals to bring to the polls in the first place.

It probably won’t matter so much in Texas this fall. Rather than an open seat on a level playing field, the governor’s race here is stacked in favor of the quasi-Tea Party Republican, Rick Perry. But what happens in Kentucky will send a message to the Texas GOP brass, which has generally been following Perry’s lead and embracing the Tea Partiers as its new base. In the long run, that’s a recipe for marginalization.

Maybe Democrats’ fondest hope ought to be a Rand Paul victory in November—luring Republicans in Texas and the rest of the country giddily down the path of permanent minorities.