For months now, speculation has been rife that the Tea Party movement and the grassroots revolt against big-government that it represents poses a real threat to political incumbents of both parties. Yesterday’s primary election results have transformed such speculation into political reality.
In Kentucky, the Tea-Party backed candidate, Rand Paul, the son of libertarian Texas Congressman Ron Paul, won a convincing victory over Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Greyson. Greyson enjoyed the support of the GOP establishment, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConell, but Paul had the Tea Party insurgents on his side. Unapologetically embracing the Tea Partiers, Paul ran on a straightforward small-government platform, calling for a balanced federal budget, a reduced national debt, and an end to government bailouts and subsidies for private industries and interests. In the end, he won by a comfortable margin.
Rand Paul’s victory is only the latest example of the Tea Partiers successfully gate-crashing the official Republican camp. In Utah earlier this month, voters in the Republican nomination convention heeded the Tea Party movement’s urging to dump Sen. Bob Bennett. Dooming Bennett was his support for several big-government initiatives, most prominently the Troubled Asset Relief Program bank bailout. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist has also met with the wrath of the Tea Partiers, whose opposition forced him surrender the Republican mantle to Tea Party favorite Marco Rubio in favor of an independent run. Polls suggest he faces an uphill struggle.
While the Tea Parties have had their greatest impact on Republican primary races, Democrats have also born the brunt of the anti-incumbent backlash. In Pennsylvania last night, Republican defector Sen. Arlen Specter lost the state’s Democratic primary to two-term Rep. Joe Sestak, effectively ending his political career. Even in the absence of anti-incumbent sentiment, Specter’s was a tall order: He had to convince voters that his political conversion was a matter of principle rather than, as was apparent to all, pure political expedience. It was an obvious fiction that not even President Obama, who campaigned for Specter and even cut radio and television ads on his behalf, could make credible.
Even here, though, the Tea Party, or at least its brand of anti-Washington angst, made its presence felt. In his victory speech, Sestak sounded like nothing so much as a Tea Party candidate, as he hailed his win as a triumph “over the establishment, over the status quo, even over Washington, D.C.” Of course, it’s a bit rich for a Democrat to style himself as an opponent of Washington, where after all Democrats control both houses of Congress. But such is the national mood that even the party in charge must distance itself from any association with leadership.
Arlen Specter meanwhile is not the only political veteran on the Democratic side, however recent his affiliation, to find himself out of a job for too-close a connection with Washington’s failures. In West Virginia last week, 14-term Democratic Rep. Alan Mollohan became the first House member in 2010 to lose a reelection bid. Although he lost to a fellow Democrat, key in Mollohan’s defeat was his support for the Obama administration’s health care overhaul. It is a sign of perilous times ahead for the party that, even in a Democratic primary, support for the Democratic administration’s signature legislative initiative has become a political death warrant.
Still, that does not yet make the Tea Party and its small-government vision kingmaker in political races. While the influence of the Tea Partiers has obviously been important, the usual primary season caveats apply. Primary elections tend to draw a more ideologically motivated cohort of voters, and it remains to be seen whether the Tea Party will be a significant factor in the fall’s elections races. And yet it is becoming increasingly implausible to claim, as many in the prestige media have, that the Tea Party and the backlash against big government are fringe phenomena. As Rand Paul declared in his victory speech last night: “I have a message from the Tea Party. We’ve come to take our government back.” They will soon have their chance.