In defense of the Tea Party’s role in 2010

Thursday, November 04, 2010 at 9:03 am

If the GOP had just run Rep. Mike Castle in Delaware, Sue Lowden in Nevada and Jane Norton in Colorado, they’d be looking at an evenly split Senate right now. At least that’s the message that establishment Republicans, frustrated with the Tea Party and its Senate cheerleader, Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), were sounding yesterday, as fault lines within the GOP that had been successfully tamped down during the general election began to reassert themselves:

“Candidates matter,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). “It was a good night for Republicans but it could have been a better one. We left some on the table.”

Referring to the debate within the right about whether the party was better off losing the Delaware seat than winning with a moderate Republican like Rep. Mike Castle, who lost the GOP primary to Christine O’Donnell, Graham was even more blunt.

“If you think what happened in Delaware is ‘a win’ for the Republican Party then we don’t have a snowball’s chance to win the White House,” he said. “If you think Delaware was a wake-up call for Republicans than we have shot at doing well for a long time.”

Republicans took extra care to blast DeMint, who lavished millions on Tea Party candidates, like O’Donnell, who were not the preferred pick of the establishment. Conservatives were quick to fire back that the NRSC wasted $8 million in California on a fool’s errand trying to unseat Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) — money that could have been better spent in tight races.

But does the GOP establishment’s blame game have any merit? On an race-by-race basis, the answer is most likely yes. Castle was a popular House representative who could have easily won Delaware, while Sen. Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) negatives were high enough that only a figure as polarizing as Angle seemed capable of making him look like the lesser of two evils to Nevadans.

Candidates don’t run in a vacuum, however, and blaming the Tea Party for the loss of a few seats misses the point that the movement undoubtedly provided the energy and enthusiasm to win an historic wave in Congress. Without the Tea Party, in other words, Republicans might have beaten Reid, but it’s unlikely that longtime Democratic congressmen like Reps. John Spratt (S.C.) and Ike Skelton (Mo.) and Blue Dogs like Reps. Baron Hill (Ind.), Zack Space (Ohio) and Patrick Murphy (Pa.) would have all been defeated.

You don’t have to go far back in time to get another example of this phenomenon. The Netroots largely failed in getting liberal candidates — like Ned Lamont — elected to statewide office, but few would deny the important role the Online Left played in generating momentum for Democratic wave years in 2006 and 2008.

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