On July 31, former Republican senator Bob Bennett made a bold pronouncement on the Fox Business Network. “I do feel that the Tea Party wave is receding,” he said, “and it’s not going to be nearly as big a factor in this election as it was in 2010.” There was a tone of hopefulness in Bennett’s prediction. In 2010, the three-term Utah senator had been one of the Tea Party’s top Republican targets, losing his renomination with a humiliating third place finish at the state GOP convention.
As it turned out, Bennett picked the wrong day to suggest the Tea Party was over. A few hours later, Ted Cruz of Texas, the latest populist conservative hero, was celebrating his win in the Republican primary runoff election for the U.S. Senate. “Tonight is a victory for the grassroots,” the 41-year-old Cruz said. “It is a testament to Republican women, to Tea Party leaders, and to grassroots conservatives.”
Bennett’s assessment may be superficially correct; the Tea Party juggernaut of 2010 isn’t repeating itself en masse this time around. Cruz’s victory stands out because it’s one of relatively few Tea Party-fueled coups this cycle.
But the evidence shows that, in fact, the Tea Party is building on its 2010 victories, emerging as the new Republican establishment. The shift is already obvious in the House of Representatives, with a GOP leadership team that is decidedly more conservative than in past years and a sizable freshman class that pulls the conference closer toward policies of limited government and fiscal discipline.
Now the focus is on changing Congress’s upper house. Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, a beneficiary of the 2010 Tea Party wave, says the movement within the Senate is “stronger than ever.” While Senate Republican leadership works to take the majority by winning key races in swing states, the Tea Party is concentrating on red state primaries, like that in Texas, to add to its ranks and push the caucus further to the right.
The movement has learned a lot since 2010. That year, the Tea Party backed plenty of successful Senate candidates, including Toomey, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Mike Lee, and Ron Johnson. But there were also some duds in states where Republicans would have otherwise been competitive. In Nevada and Colorado, weakened incumbents Harry Reid and Michael Bennet slid by with even weaker challengers in Sharron Angle and Ken Buck. These Tea Party-supported candidates may have been ideologically pure, but they weren’t ready for prime time. Their defeats helped Democrats keep control of the Senate.
As Toomey puts it, “the Tea Party has gone through a maturation process.” Its current crop of candidates look more like those who succeeded in 2010 than those who failed.
In Indiana this May, six-term moderate Republican Dick Lugar fell to Tea Party-backed Richard Mourdock, a soft-spoken and intelligent conservative who’s an experienced campaigner, having won two elections as state treasurer. Mourdock told me this spring that his turnaround moment came in an April debate. “My mission going in was to look confident, capable, and conservative,” Mourdock said. “And that’s what I did.” Hoosiers look likely to vote Republican in November; despite some polling showing Mourdock even with Democratic rival Joe Donnelly, the seat should stay in GOP hands.
In Nebraska, rural state senator Deb Fischer mounted a come-from-behind primary win over her better-known Republican opponents for the chance to succeed retiring Democratic senator Ben Nelson. One of those opponents, state treasurer Don Stenberg, actually had support from some national Tea Party figures. But an eleventh-hour endorsement from Sarah Palin, an ad campaign that emphasized her outsider image, and backing from local Tea Party groups helped Fischer overcome Stenberg and attorney general Jon Bruning, the establishment favorite, in May. Fischer is on track to defeat former Democratic senator Bob Kerrey this November, perhaps by double digits.
Last week’s primary in Texas followed a now-familiar pattern. Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison, a moderate by Lone Star State standards, announced her retirement last year. The GOP establishment, including Governor Rick Perry and 17 state senators, backed three-term lieutenant governor David Dewhurst to replace her. Dewhurst also had financial support from PACs funded by the state’s real estate, oil and gas, agriculture, restaurant, and medical industries.
But Cruz, the brainy former state solicitor general, former Supreme Court clerk, and political novice, surprised observers by holding Dewhurst under 50 percent in the May primary and forcing the July runoff. Over those two months, the Cruz campaign and its conservative interest group allies, like the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks, and the Tea Party Express, continued to push one message: In the Senate, Dewhurst would be a go-along-to-get-along moderate while Cruz would be a conservative fighter.
“There’s not any question that Dewhurst would have worked with [Senate minority leader Mitch] McConnell,” says Chris Chocola, the president of the Club for Growth. Cruz, on the other hand, would be on the side of the Tea Party caucus and its de facto Senate leader, Jim DeMint. The message worked: Cruz swung his margin by more than 20 points to trounce Dewhurst, 57 percent to 43 percent.
While the Tea Party has had these important victories this cycle, it’s also learned to pick its fights wisely. In 2010, an open seat in Delaware that Republican Mike Castle was almost sure to win was squandered when primary voters nominated the problematic Christine O’Donnell instead. Delaware prefers moderate Republicans like Castle, and what should have been a pickup for the GOP turned into a national embarrassment. That served as a cautionary tale for grassroots conservatives, and it’s clear the Tea Party is learning to cede some political battles, particularly in purple and blue states, to win the larger war over control of the Senate.
In Virginia, for example, Richmond Tea Party leader Jamie Radtke was able to offer only a weak challenge to George Allen for the Republican nomination. For all Allen’s flaws as a candidate, Radtke’s were worse—she was disorganized, unserious, and uncompetitive outside of Virginia’s deeply conservative regions. National conservative groups stayed on the sidelines. And while Utah’s Orrin Hatch faced Tea Party opposition from former state senator Dan Liljenquist, Republican voters rewarded Hatch with a primary win after the veteran senator worked hard to gain the trust of grassroots organizations.
So, gone are the mass protests and lively town hall meetings that characterized the Tea Party’s ascendance as a major political force. But just as the movement transformed our politics, politics have transformed the movement. As Chocola says, “I’ve been of the opinion all along that the Tea Party’s just getting started.” The Tea Party is more nimble, more shrewd, and more interested in building a governing majority than in simply making a statement.
Michael Warren is a reporter at The Weekly Standard.