Tea Party Fail in New Hampshire?

How the anti-establishment movement became a victim of its own success.

The Tea Party movement has scalped establishment candidates from Alaska to Delaware. In New Hampshire on Tuesday, it faltered. After an extended vote count, establishment Republican Kelly Ayotte was declared the winner over her allegedly Tea Party-backed challenger, conservative lawyer Ovide LaMontagne, in the state’s Senate primary. What happened?

According to some pundits, nothing. Author Doug Schoen told National Review Online yesterday, "The election results demonstrate fundamentally and clearly that the tea-party movement is as powerful as the Republican Party - the Grand Old Party - and the now-weakened Democratic party. The results in Delaware, New Hampshire, and New York prove it as clearly as anything could."

No, they don't. The Tea Party movement is a powerful and positive force that is reshaping, at least for now, the Republican Party. But despite its victories in Delaware and New York, it failed in New Hampshire on Tuesday night.

In contrast with Delaware, where an establishment Republican faced a bona fide Tea Party insurgent, New Hampshire's Republican U.S. Senate primary featured an anointed successor to retiring Sen. Judd Gregg (Ayotte), a conservative insurgent (LaMontagne) and two pro-choice, millionaire businessmen running to fix the economy (Jim Bender and Bill Binnie). Test question: Who was the Tea Party candidate?

Neither Bender nor Binnie became a Tea Party-backed candidate, even though both were political newcomers espousing fiscally conservative, pro-growth messages. LaMontagne, the 1996 gubernatorial nominee, was your standard Reaganite challenger who attracted the support of social conservatives and others seeking a proven conservative they could trust. But he was no Tea Party rabble rouser.

Which candidate got the Tea Party's backing? Well, Sarah Palin endorsed Ayotte, the establishment candidate. Does that count? Only if Palin speaks for the entire Tea Party movement (which she does not) and endorsing the establishment's hand-picked candidate amounts to leading a Tea Party insurgency (which it does not). Sen. Jim DeMint endorsed LaMontagne, but one endorsement does not a Tea Party insurgency make. The truth is, this was not a race shaped by the Tea Party, except in one possible way.

The rolling boil that set the tea kettle steaming last year might have helped entice challengers into the race. Would Binnie and Bender have run without first being convinced that there was a mass movement out there that would support them? Maybe not. Lamontagne likely would have run regardless.

It may be that the Tea Party's notoriety hurt it in New Hampshire, where one U.S. Senate seat and both House seats were up for grabs. If the existence of a widespread anti-establishment movement convinced challengers to enter these races, then the Tea Party helped nominate three establishment candidates.

In all three primaries, the establishment candidate won when multiple outsider candidates split the anti-establishment votes. Ayotte squeaked out a victory yesterday, former Manchester Mayor Frank Guinta narrowly beat business executives Rich Ashooh , Sean Mahoney and Bob Bestani, and former six-term Rep. Charlie Bass, the stereotypical New England moderate Republican, beat out former columnist and radio talk show host Jennifer Horn and former state Rep. Bob Giuda. All the challengers campaigned as conservative, anti-Washington outsiders. With no Tea Party organization driving the vote to a single insurgent, the challengers divided the anti-establishment vote among themselves, and they all lost.

By contrast, the primaries in Washington and New York featured one establishment candidate and one outsider. The Tea Party, as much as one can call it a single entity, was able to rally around a single candidate and carry that candidate to victory.

New Hampshire, which encourages average citizens to run for office by charging filing fees of only $50 for the U.S. House and $100 for Senate, is accustomed to seeing big, multi-candidate primaries. What happened Tuesday is not unusual here. In 2002, long before the Tea Party came into being, millionaire businessman Craig Benson won a crowded GOP primary despite having no political experience, and went on to become governor. That same year, the Republican primary in the First Congressional District had so many conservatives running that moderate state Sen. Jeb Bradley was able to sail past all of them to win the nomination and eventually the House seat.

So it might not have been the Tea Party that encouraged so many challengers to enter the GOP field this year. But I suspect it was. The message of every one of the outsiders was tailored so specifically to Tea Party voters, and so many quality candidates entered the races, that it would be surprising if the Tea Party's 2009 successes didn't play a role in convincing a lot of these candidates that they'd have a shot this year. And if that were the case, then the Tea Party became a victim of its own success in New Hampshire on Tuesday.

Andrew Cline is editorial page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader. His Twitter ID is Drewhampshire.