Obsessions take many forms. There’s the crazy Hitchcockian “Psycho” kind, there’s the harmless baseball-card-collecting kind, and then there’s the teenage crush. For the past four years, the media’s chattering classes have carried on in their infatuation with the tea party like debutantes with a bad case of puppy love. It’s been a story that they just couldn’t stop talking about.
As in any teenage romance, there’s been lots of drama. Every Republican primary was described in battle terms that put Civil War buffs to shame; fringe candidates were promoted to front-page coverage; Republican leaders in the House and Senate were depicted as withering under a barrage of right-wing demands. Last Tuesday, however, that exaggerated fantasy of tea-party-induced electoral chaos received a cold dose of reality. In six primary contests across the country, the tea party lost, mainstream Republicans won, and political reporters and commentators were heartbroken.
In the highest-profile contests, Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho and Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky cruised to victory over challengers from the right. In Georgia, none of the three candidates branding themselves with the tea party label even made it into the GOP runoff. Coupled with the recent primary win by state House Speaker Thom Tillis in North Carolina, odds are increasing that Republicans will win the Senate in November.
Without question, the tea party movement was an interesting story at the outset. But the media narrative shifted and lost sight of a few facts. In reality, the tea party’s genesis wasn’t so much anti-establishment as it was anti-Obama. In the run-up to the 2010 elections, the movement solidified over opposition to the president’s $890 billion stimulus bill, Obamacare legislation, and the Troubled Asset Relief Program that President Barack Obama was administering.
To this day, the tea party’s highest-profile victories – Senate primaries in Utah and Delaware in 2010 – came against incumbent candidates who were perceived as weak on those specific issues. The tea party got the blame for Republicans’ failure to win that Delaware seat, as well as the loss against Harry Reid in Nevada. On the other hand, the momentum the movement brought to the polls that year was instrumental in taking back control of the House of Representatives.
Today, the equation has changed, as the country faces a very different set of challenges. Republican candidates are largely aligned on the issues of Obamacare, energy, the economy and the unfolding scandal within the Department of Veterans Affairs. That doesn’t mean that differences don’t exist within the party, but simply that there are fewer fault lines.
Nor do the tea party failures mean that voters have suddenly turned “pro-establishment.” At the end of the day, the biggest factor may simply have been overall quality of the more mainstream candidates. In fact, in practically every open race, the National Republican Senatorial Committee persuaded the party’s highest-tier candidates to run – so much so that seats currently held by Democrats in South Dakota and West Virginia are now viewed as safe GOP pickups.
The sheer number of candidates taking part in many primaries makes it inevitable that at least one will attempt to claim the tea party mantle and whichever votes that brings along. But the real message in those numbers is about intensity. The multi-candidate fields for seats in North Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana and West Virginia clearly signal that Republicans feel confident 2014 will be a winning year.
Talking heads who dreamed of spending another long summer with the tea party may need time to get over Tuesday’s losses. But like any other adolescents, they’re a resilient bunch. Throughout the coming months, a few longing stories will occasionally pop up to raise the possibility that tea party candidates will run as independents, that their disgruntled voters will support Democrats, or that angry conservatives will stay home on Election Day. Like jilted teens, pundits who’ve been proven wrong can’t help but linger over what might have been.
John E. Sununu, a former Republican senator from New Hampshire, writes regularly for The Boston Globe.