The tea party says it’s growing up — and so are the candidates it chooses.
In 2010, the tea party vs. establishment showdowns that took place in GOP primaries were often a messy process marked by prominent tea party candidates drawing national attention for all the wrong reasons. In 2012, it has shown signs of fine-tuning — many of the tea party insurgents who are taking on the mainstream have a much better chance of winning. And that, says one prominent tea party group, is by design.
The lessons of 2010 are still fresh. Though some of the tea party’s Senate picks that year went on to win — among them Sens. Mike Lee (UT), Rand Paul (KY) and Marco Rubio (FL) — the bigger story was the tea partiers who were blamed for blowing GOP chances at seizing control of the Senate in a Republican wave year. Nominees like Christine O’Donnell in Delaware and Sharron Angle in Nevada became the mascots for the tea party movement, and their bumbling general election campaigns that went down in flames left a lasting impression.
Some thought the memories of Angle and O’Donnell would make it tougher for the tea party to make a push in relatively safe GOP Senate races this year. So-called “establishment” Republicans were expected to be more prepared, and Republican voters more wary of hardcore conservatives leading them down the path to oblivion.
But the tea party was learning lessons, too. And that’s one of the reasons, its leaders say, that the insurgents are faring so well. The candidates carrying the tea party banner in Senate races this year are not of the Angle mold. In Indiana, tea party candidate Richard Mourdock, a two-time statewide elected official with party ties, knocked off Sen. Richard Lugar (R). Democrats think they have a better shot at beating Mourdock than they did Lugar (the party has even compared Mourdock to Ken Buck, the tea party insurgent who lost in Colorado in 2010) but the Republican Party doesn’t seem worried. Republicans are confident they’ll keep the seat, even if they have to fight a little harder.
In Texas, tea partiers are celebrating an upset performance by former state Solicitor General Ted Cruz, who forced a run-off with Lt. Gov. Dave Dewhurst in the Republican primary for the seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R). Cruz still came in 11 points behind Dewhurst, but that’s close enough to give him a shot at taking the nomination in a runoff vote where turnout will likely favor Cruz’s activist supporters. Democrats don’t have high hopes for the Texas Senate race, and Cruz is another tea party insurgent candidate who on paper appears to be a strong pick for a general election.
That’s not a coincidence, says FreedomWorks, the corporate-backed arm of the tea party responsible for pumping millions into the Indiana and Texas races on behalf of Mourdock and Cruz. In preparing for the 2012 primaries, the group put candidates through a vetting process aimed at separating out the would-be duds from the candidates who could actually win.
“‘Are you a good communicator? Can you go on the stump and not alienate people by not doing and saying things that are outside of the mainstream? Also, can you raise money?’ We’re looking into that more now and we’re better at it,” said Brendan Steinhauser, director of campaigns for FreedomWorks. “It’s all just more sophisticated, I think.”
Back in 2010, Steinhauser said tea partiers were scrounging for candidates as support for the movement grew. That meant there wasn’t time for the kind of careful vetting and long-range planning and coordination between conservative groups he says has been characteristic of the tea party’s efforts in 2012. FreedomWorks is also quicker to tell local tea partiers that the candidate they may have their heart set on might not be the best pick for a general election campaign.
“It’s also playing the role as adviser to a lot of the local groups and ‘Don’t you think that, yeah, even though this guy’s a really good conservative, don’t you think this guy is probably just as good but probably has a better chance to win?’” Steinhauser said.
FreedomWorks has still hit its share of snags in 2012 despite the new process. In Nebraska, the group’s pick in the Republican Senate primary, state Treasurer Don Stenberg (another candidate with statewide election experience) lost to the virtually unknown Deb Fischer, a state senator who earned the support of Sarah Palin in the final days of the primary fight.
FreedomWorks is again pitted against Palin in Utah, where it and other tea party groups hope to deny Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) the nomination. Tea partiers were thrilled to force Hatch into a primary, but that excitement was tempered somewhat when Palin went against the grain and backed the incumbent.
Steinhauser said Palin made the wrong call in Utah, but he still expects the tea party to do well in the primary. Hatch is still favored to win the nomination, and ultimately the general, over the insurgent candidate, former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist.
But for the most part, the candidates FreedomWorks has mounted this year don’t appear set to fall into the O’Donnell/Angle category. Republicans are noticing the growing sophistication of the movement’s campaign operations.
“The tea party has moved from the tricorn hat phase and into the killing-off-the-slow-and-complacent-establishment phase,” said GOP consultant Rick Wilson. “Viva la revolution!”