The Left sputters, while the Tea Parties surge.
As President Obama’s poll ratings tumble and the Democratic majority in Congress continues to post record disapproval numbers, some on the Left have consoled themselves with the thought that the growing grassroots hostility to incumbent candidates transcends party and ideology. In this exegesis, liberal and progressive discontents are just as wound up – and just as influential – as their conservative Tea Party counterparts. If this week’s primary election results proved anything, it’s that this reading of the nation’s political map won’t wash. While the Tea Parties continued to notch victories in pivotal primary races, the Left’s insurgents were rebuffed.
The most prominent example came from Arkansas, where embattled Senator Blanche Lincoln staved off a bruising challenge from her union-backed rival, Lt. Gov. Bill Halter. Lincoln drew Big Labor’s wrath for heresies like opposing “card check” legislation, which would have eliminated secret ballots to facilitate union organizing. As payback, unions, aided by a battery of progressive political action groups, put their full political clout into the race, sponsoring Halter to the tune of $10 million. But while the lavishly funded challenge did force Lincoln into a runoff, the unions’ purchasing power came up short. As one agonized Obama White House official told Politico: “Organized labor just flushed $10 million of their members' money down the toilet on a pointless exercise.” Lincoln remains deeply vulnerable. Polls show she trails her Republican opponent John Boozman by some 25 points. But her defeat, if it comes, will be punishment for being too loyal to the Left’s agenda (Lincoln cast the decisive 60th vote to pass ObamaCare) rather than for straying too far from it.
Lest one dismiss Arkansas as a one-off from conservative country, liberal bastions proved no more receptive to left-wing insurgents. In California’s 36th district, far-Left candidate Marcy Winograd lost her second successive bid to oust Democratic centrist Jane Harman. Winograd, who styles herself as a “peace” activist, ran a campaign that sounded the full range of the angry Left’s talking points: Harman was variously portrayed as a corporate shill, a warmonger, and a traitor to the Left. An outspoken foe of Israel, Winograd even tried to capitalize on Harman’s pro-Israel record in the context of the recent clash between Israeli commandos and armed Turkish activists attempting to run Israel’s naval blockade. Winograd boasted that as a sign of “solidarity” with the activists, her campaign had sent a Winograd for Congress T-Shirt that had been “worn on the flotilla.” As primary day neared, progressive blogs began trumpeting Winograd as the new Joe Sestak – a true progressive who would oust the incumbent impostor. The hype proved just that, as Harman won by a comfortable 18-point margin.
While primary challenges from the Left sputtered, Tea Party-backed conservatives scored several successes. Most prominently, Sharron Angle, until recently a relative unknown, rode the Tea Party movement’s support to victory in a crowded field for Nevada’s Republican nomination for the Senate. Although Tea Party spending to support Angle’s candidacy was limited compared to Big Labor’s efforts in Arkansas – the Tea Party political action committee spent just $550,000 to boost her name recognition – it was far more effective: From a 5 percent approval rating as recently as April, Angle went on to win the nomination. Tea Party-backed candidates also won in Georgia, Maine and South Carolina.
It was not all glory for the Tea Party. In California and New Jersey, Tea Party favorites failed to break through. (A too-close-to-call race between Tea Party candidate Anna Little and establishment rival Diana Gooch in New Jersey’s 6th Congressional district was one notable exception.) Even in defeat, though, there was encouraging news for the movement, as Tea Party candidates ran strongly in almost all races in which they were involved. At the very least, their generally strong showing indicated that despite their now-stale slogans of “change,” the Left is not nearly as energized, and not nearly the same force in primary races, as the surging conservative opposition.
Still, those determined to rain on the Tea Party’s parade ask a pertinent question: Can the movement replicate its strong success in primaries in general election races, where it must court a more ideologically diverse electorate? Democratic strategists and the mainstream media have professed glee over the prospect of Democratic incumbents facing candidates like Sharron Angle, whom they deem too far out of the mainstream. One Democratic strategist suggested that Harry Reid would be "dancing in the streets" were Angle to win the GOP nomination. The Washington Post even did Reid the unsolicited favor of producing a list of allegedly damning quotes that Reid could use to paint Angle as an extremist. But if early poll results are any guide, the Angle-Reid matchup won’t be the cakewalk that Democrats suppose. Indeed, a recent Mason-Dixon poll has Angle beating Reid by 44 percent to 41 percent. The Tea Party, it seems, is just getting started.