Politico has become the must-read site for Washingtonians and others who want to be plugged in. Ben Smith’s blog is my favorite, but I always scan the rest of the articles. Their coverage of the final days of the health care debate was unparalleled. But every once in awhile you discover something that is not quite right. For example, yesterday, they ran an article by James Hohmann under the title "Primaries Bruise Establishment Picks" and, just below it, was a news item, also by Mr. Hohmann that was headlined "Coats, Fisher win nominations." Former Sen. Dan Coats was the establishment pick in Indiana and Ohio Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher was the establishment pick t o run for the Senate seat in Ohio. You see the mismatch?
Hohmann thinks that both of these two candidates should have done better, noting that Coats won with less than 40 percent of the vote in a five-way race and that Fisher did more poorly than recent polls had suggested. But, they won and the next race will not be for the "heart of the party" but a binary choice between the candidates of the two parties. Most Republicans and most Democrats who turn out in November will vote for the candidate of their own party. Yesterday’s results, with their low turnout, tell us very little about the preferences of the general electorate in November.
Hohmann also notes that, "In Ohio, tea party activists suffered other notable defeats in the races for state auditor general and state attorney general. In both cases, tea party support wasn’t enough to carry their preferred candidates over the finish line." This follows the results in Texas where the tea party candidate, Debra Medina, came in third and last in that state’s gubernatorial primary. Yes, she was running against the incumbent governor and a sitting U.S. Senator, but in this anti-incumbent year, her outsider status was supposed to be her greatest strength. And, if the fired-up activists in the tea party movement can’t determine the outcome in low turnout primaries, they certainly are not going to have a major impact in the better attended midterms this autumn.
I attended a tea party rally in D.C. and to hear them tell it, they are about to take over the country. Alas, their principal achievement so far on American politics was to drive Dede Scozzafava out of the special election in New York 23rd congressional district, handing the seat to the Democrats for the first time since the Civil War. There is a difference between being noisy and being persuasive to your fellow citizens. The press would love to run with the tea party story – Lord knows, they are colorful. But, if they can’t win in a low turnout GOP primary, they can’t win.
The phenomena of playing to and hyper-ventilating about the base are not unique to the Republicans. Sen. Ted Kennedy challenged President Jimmy Carter for the 1980 presidential nomination, wounding Carter in advance of the general election. (N.B. The only two incumbent presidents to lose their re-election bids were both challenged in primaries.) More recently, I distinctly recall Democrats in the House and on MSNBC fulminating to the effect that they would never, ever support a health care reform bill that lacked a public option. President Obama correctly surmised that there was nothing to such threats.
With unemployment still high, the economy still sluggish and the threat of terrorism still with us, it should not surprise that incumbents will have a tough time this year as they did last year. But, the notion that the tea party is taking over the GOP and will thence take over the country seems a bit histrionic in light of the actual results at the polls.