The Tea Party is very much alive (reports of its death are being exaggerated)

Yesterday I noted that many pundits are suggesting that the Tea Party may have gone too far, and that rational conservatives  were starting to back away, worried about the general electability of Tea Party-backed candidates.

You will likely hear a lot more about that after yesterday’s election results.  In two crucial states, New Jersey and Virginia, “enemies” of the Tea Party: the Republican Chris Christie in NJ and the Democrat Terry McAuliffe in VA — came out as winners.  So does that mean the Tea Party is weakened, and both parties will move away from them?

I doubt it.  For one can easily read the election results another way.

First, Christie’s big win can be viewed as hardly typical of what he or other moderate Republicans will achieve nationally.  NJ is a blue state where Christie’s own family story, deep roots, and devotion to the state after Hurricane Sandy paid big dividends.  And he was running against a relatively unknown and weakly backed Democrat.  What if he had been running against Cory Booker, the popular Democratic ex-Mayer of Newark who just had a huge victory of his own in his run for a NJ Senate seat?  I doubt Christie’s victory would have been so sweeping.  Moreover, I do not think Christie’s pragmatism will sell as well in hard-core Tea Party centers in the south, mid-west and mountain states.  No Atlantic/New England Republican has done well nationally in a very long time (the Bushes were from Connecticut, but ran as Texans, as that had become their financial and political base).  So I think Tea Partiers will continue to be skeptical about Christie, and he will have a hard road to the nomination.  If nominated, he may do well among independents and democrats, but not as well as Hilary Clinton is likely to do — those are her core supporters as well.

If Clinton runs she will need Virginia.  But the Tea Party did amazingly well there.  Due to early polls showing McAuliffe with a big lead, the Republican establishment did not go all out to support his Republican Tea-Party opponent, Ken Cucinelli.   McAuliffe had much more money, which he poured into airtime.  McAulliffe also got help from both Hilary and Bill Clinton, who campaigned  for him, and from the states two democratic Senators (who are also popular former governors), Mark Warner and Tim Kaine.  Even with all those advantages going for him, McAulliffe barely pulled out a victory, winning by under 55,000 votes out of 2 million cast.   In a Presidential election, a larger turnout could easily turn that margin around.  This was a very strong showing by a fairly extreme Tea Party candidate in a major battleground state; with more money and national support it could well have gone the other way.

We can easily see that in the race for Virginia’s attorney general, which finished in a dead heat.  A Tea-Party supported Republican, Mark Obenshain, ran against a moderate Democrat, Mark Herring.   With over 2 million votes counted, they are separated by just a few hundred votes.  It will take a recount, not likely finished until December, until we know who won this race.    This race is more likely a true measure of conservative Republican support across the state, as the Governor’s race was affected by a third-party Libertarian Candidate who picked up more than 145,000 votes — more than enough to erase McAuliffe’s margin of victory if they broke strongly conservative (exit polling suggests they would not have in this case, but in a national election, who knows?)

So I expect that as the overall results sink in, many Tea Party supporters will be encouraged, and conclude that all they have to do is try harder in 2016; and we can be certain they will.

About jackgoldstone

Hazel Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University
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