Sunday, August 10, 2014

Tea Party, hot water II:
Bad primary news gets worse

WE’RE advised not to seek perfection in our lives, at the risk of inevitably being disappointed. There are, of course, exceptions to its unexpected pursuit and the thoroughly expected outcome: the regular seasons of the 1972 Miami Dolphins, for example, or the 2007 New England Patriots. And there are other exceptions. Some seek out perfection, others have perfection thrust upon them.

The Tea Party fits this second description, well, perfectly. The timed-release train wreck of this leadership-averse conservative political movement continued late last week, with three defeats in about as many days of the calendar:

On Thursday, Lamar Alexander, the 12-year senator and former governor of Tennessee, secured the Republican nomination in that state’s GOP primary election, beating back a challenge from Rep. Joe Carr. Carr was backed by such Tea Party theoreticians as Laura Ingraham and political personality Sarah Palin, the former nominal Alaska governor. Like other Tea Party candidates in other states, he conducted a ritual attack on Alexander’s time in office, and on his position on immigration reform. In the end, it was sound and fury signifying nothing but a nine-point loss.

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On Tuesday, Michigan foreclosure attorney Dave Trott defeated Rep. Kerry Bentivolio, the reindeer farmer and so-called “accidental congressman” whose rise to power began when he replaced nutball incumbent Thaddeus McCotter, who resigned amid a scandal in 2012.

Trott got 66 percent of the vote to Bentivolio’s 34 percent with all precincts in, The Associated Press reported. Trott will face Democrat Bobby McKenzie, a scholar and State Department counterterrorism adviser, in November.

“Trott’s victory is a boon for the Michigan Republican establishment,” Politico reported. “As party support lined up behind Trott, Bentivolio was left largely unprotected, a development made worse by a series of missteps within his campaign. Though the incumbent retained the support of tea-party and socially-conservative groups, his campaign struggled to raise money and was ultimately unable to afford TV advertising.”

Also on Tuesday, in a high-profile death blow to the optics and perception of the Tea Party as a viable entity, Republican Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts turned back a challenge from diagnostic radiologist, conservative columnist and Tea Party darling Dr. Milton Wolf — this despite a campaign statement by Roberts that might have been turned into a liability by a more nimble, well-capitalized opponent.

The longstanding Tea Party math, by which opposition to a politician in office = equal to that politician’s time in office, found no takers in the Jayhawk State — or not enough people willing to conflate seniority with ineptitude. "He has just been so strong for the state of Kansas," said Roberts supporter Margie Robinow to The Wall Street Journal.

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THIRTY-ODD years in Washington gives you a good grasp of political politesse. Roberts, speaking to a crowd at a victory rally, called for unity in the fall. "We cannot afford a fractured party. The stakes are just too high," he said in Overland Park. “Republicans cannot afford the kind of intraparty fratricide that we have seen recently.” Spending that kind of time in D.C., you also develop a nose for where the money is. Roberts raised an estimated $3.2 million for his campaign; Wolf raised about $1 million.

Wolf’s insurgent campaign got some loft for a while. He had the support of the Senate Conservatives Fund, the Tea Party Express and RedState’s Erick Erickson, among others. Wolf may have had his best shot when Roberts told The New York Times that he didn’t own a home in Kansas, and used a donor's place as his official residence in the state he represents. In a radio interview, Roberts said he visits Kansas "every time I have an opponent."

It didn’t matter. Experience and deeper pockets won the day. Roberts moves on to the general in November, taking on Chad Taylor, who won the Democratic primary. Roberts is expected to lock it up.

Three for three. For the Tea Party, a perfect record in August. Or should that say “perfect storm” instead?

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The pattern you’re detecting didn’t start in August. These defeats followed a toweringly inconvenient embarrassment on June 24, in Mississippi, when and where Sen. Thad Cochran, 76, a Republican senator for 35 years, schooled state Sen. Chris McDaniel, 42, the Tea Party candidate for the U.S. Senate. McDaniel, who did not go quietly, has refused to concede and mounted a challenge to the results. On Friday, Red State reported that the state Republican Party would not hear McDaniel’s challenge to the outcome of the race.

Also on that day in June: In Oklahoma, Rep. James Lankford defeated former state House Speaker T. W. Shannon in that state’s GOP Senate primary. Shannon, who is Native American and African-American, had the backing of Palin and Tea Party shaman Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, in the race to succeed the retiring Tom Coburn.

And you don’t have to stop with June. You can go all the way back to May. Thom Tillis, the speaker of the North Carolina House, won his Republican Senate primary on May 6 with 45.7 percent of the vote, handily toppling several Libertarian/Tea Party challengers.

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THAT SAME day, in another primary, North Carolina GOP Rep. Renee Ellmers defeated a conservative Internet talk show host, crushing him by 17 points in the state’s 2nd Congressional District.

The same May day, in the North Carolina 7th, former state Sen. David Rouzer won the GOP primary with the backing of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. And in the Ohio 14th, Republican Rep. David Joyce defeated Rep. Matt Lynch, who had the support of the libertarian nonprofit FreedomWorks. You could go back to March, if you want to — that’s when Texas Sen. John Cornyn rebuffed an insurgent campaign by another Tea Party candidate — but you can tell already where this is going.

In a Wednesday story about Roberts of Kansas, The Washington Post revealed how little reason there was to replace him: “In its annual scorecard released earlier this year, the American Conservative Union gave Roberts an 89 percent conservative rating during the Obama presidency — more than 25 points higher than Cochran during the same period,” The Post reported.

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What The Post reported about Roberts may be applicable to Tea Party incumbent challenges just about anywhere.

Sure, Virginia's Eric Cantor lost in June to a Tea Party candidate. But that was an outlier; many say he was vulnerable anyway. The bigger pattern to be detected is apparent to anyone who’s paying attention: These serial Tea Party defeats say, like nothing else could, that ideological purity isn’t enough anymore for the wider cross-section of Republican voters, those voters who want their unalloyed ideology mixed with a healthy dose of practicality — the potential to actually do something (like get elected, first of all).

“The good news is that the [National Republican Senatorial Committee] successfully avoided another reiteration of Christine O'Donnell or Todd Akin this cycle,” said Brian Walsh, a former NRSC adviser, to The Post, in a passing reference to two Tea Party upstarts who imploded in 2010 and 2012. “The Republican field of candidates is as strong as it’s ever been heading into the fall.”

These successive Tea Party wipeouts tell us that adult supervision has entered the building. Playtime may be over. It’s time to look for someone who can, just maybe, win.

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WHETHER THEY and other Republicans can set aside their own internal dissensions is the big open question as the primary season continues (three primaries are set for Tuesday, two more on Aug. 19, and seven more after that, by Sept. 9). L. Brent Bozell III, chairman of conservative advocacy group ForAmerica, told The Washington Post he believes the Republican mainstream’s efforts to beat back challengers are what's doing the greatest damage.

“They have thrown the kitchen sink against their own base to win," he said. “This is civil war in the GOP,” he told The Post’s Sean Sullivan and Robert Costa.

But you can hardly blame the GOP establishment for pushing back against the yahoos and moonbayers, the Angles and Akinses and Lowdens and O’Donnells who’ve embarrassed the party far too recently to be forgotten.

Who can close the Great Breach? "It's very clear that no one will be able to win the nomination in 2016 coming from only one portion of the Republican Party's center-right coalition," said GOP pollster Whit Ayres, to The Post. "By definition, whoever wins is going to have to stitch together a coalition of people who identify with disparate parts of the party.”

And that’s going to be a monumental challenge when party thought leaders and media poobahs hate coalition thinking, when party fidelity is defined by how much Republicans resist identifying with those that don’t act or think like them. Bozell’s right: “This is civil war in the GOP.” For an increasingly siloed GOP that’s conditioned itself to see intraparty peacemaking as appeasement, the stage may be set for a war with no end in sight.

Image credits: Alexander: AP/The Daily Times, Tom Sherlin. Roberts and wife, Race for Senate graphic: Cochran: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images. O'Donnell: Remy Stern for Gawker. Elephants at war: Mike Hill/Getty Images.

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