Politics tends to be a lot more fluid than people give it credit for. Never underestimate the power of just choosing to stop caring about something.
Over the last couple of years, Washington’s dominant political narrative has held that Republicans care a lot about Tea Party primary challenges. Very little else, in fact. Unless GOP politicians tack to the extreme right on absolutely every issue, the story went, they were dooming themselves to face hard-right challengers come re-nomination time, and then ultimately go the way of poor old Senator Bennett in Utah.
This was said to be bad news on two fronts.
For one, it forced Congressional Republicans to embrace an ideological baseline dictated by a powerful, yet small and unlikeable faction of their base — the so-called “minority of the minority,” or the least popular segment of a party that’s not itself terribly popular. Among other things, this resulted in Speaker Boehner elevating the “Hastert Rule,” which basically forbade ever passing legislation with Democratic support, to the level of constitutional law, and the sabotage of popular bills like the post-Sandy Hook gun control measures and the 2013 continuing budget resolution — the latter of which provoked last fall’s government shutdown.
Come election time, meanwhile, Tea Party power led to the rise of several unelectably extreme candidates — your Richard Mourdocks, your Todd Aikens — allowing Republicans to repeatedly snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Though the math isn’t quite as rock-solid as triumphalist liberals often claim, it’s clear at the very least that the GOP would have come a lot closer to winning control of the Senate in 2010 and 2012 had they not run extremist Tea Party people in otherwise winnable races.
But what was to be done? For a long time this seemed like the Gordian Knot of American conservative politics. As the opposition party, the Republicans needed to maintain internal unity to effectively challenge a powerful Democratic machine; a unity that could supposedly only be preserved by letting the coalition’s most fair-weather faction call the shots. Moderate/establishment Republicans clearly perceived their Tea Party colleagues as somewhat radical and irrational, yet the only way you can appease radical and irrational people is on their own radical and irrational terms.
Unless, of course, you decide to just stop caring about them.
Ever since the government shutdown, which proved disastrous for Republican poll numbers, the GOP elite has become increasingly comfortable just calling the Tea Party’s bluff and ramming ahead with whatever needs to be done. Speaker Boehner has now basically abandoned the Hastert Rule; while he only allowed three bills in the 113th Congress to pass with Democratic support, he now lets it happen all the time, most notably with last December’s relatively low-fanfare Paul Ryan-Pat Murray bipartisan budget deal, which Ryan openly (though dishonestly) bragged about being the first bipartisan agreement of its kind since the Reagan years.
Ryan and Murray’s pragmatic short-term fix to America’s long-running budget woes was widely despised by all the Tea Party groups, but Boehner didn’t care. In a famous press conference, he said those people had “lost all credibility” since the shutdown, and were now just “misleading their followers” with idle nonsense. A few months later he then took another once-contentious issue off the table, allowing a “clean” hike to the US debt celling — that is, one without preconditions to defund Obamacare or whatever — to pass with Democratic help in the face of massive Tea Party opposition.
Mitch McConnell, the Senate GOP leader, for his part, has now made it very clear he’s not going to let the upcoming 2014 Congressional midterms see yet another Republican majority slip through his fingers thanks to a bunch of Tea Party radicals ruining everything.
“I think we are going to crush them everywhere,” he said unambiguously in a New York Times interview last week. “I don’t think they are going to have a single nominee anywhere in the country.”
For McConnell, the issue hits close to home — he’s facing a far-right primary challenger of his own in his native Kentucky, backed by the Tea Party-aligned Senate Conservatives Fund — but the concern is national.
The Republicans need only capture six seats to flip the Senate in November, a number that’s conveniently close to the amount of Democrat incumbents who are either vulnerable or retiring. Virtually every Republican senator up for re-election, in contrast, is in a state too red to lose. 2014: the GOP’s “last best chance,” as some have dubbed it.
Yet at the same time, most state Republican parties are not scheduled to hold their nomination elections until late spring, early summer, or in some cases, early fall, meaning we still don’t know exactly who’s going to be facing down many of these weak Dems. What we do know, however, is that practically all of these primary races feature a Tea Party contestant of one stripe or another, and in states like Alaska, North Carolina, and Louisiana the TP people are running in explicit opposition to some popular, moderate local Republican politician. Shades of Christine O’Donnell versus Governor Castle?
About a half-dozen incumbent Republican senators are being challenged by Tea Partiers, too, and while this is generally less relevant, given, as mentioned, that most GOP re-election campaigns this year will be held in very red states, there’s still the slight possibility that primary upsets in places like Maine, Georgia, or possibly even Kentucky could turn safe seats into tossups.
Like never before, 2014 is shaping into an election in which all remaining pretences of peace between the GOP establishment and Tea Party are dropped in favor of all-out civil war. The Republican brain trust simply can’t afford anything less than a total TP defeat this time around, so they’re willing to pay and say and do whatever it takes to get there. It’s a dramatic reversal of the last few years, and a high-risk, top-down strategy that paradoxically risks exacerbating the very populist, far-right resistance it most aspires to destroy.
Republicans have stopped caring about the Tea Party. But when will the Tea Party start caring about them?