This year has been a much less target-rich environment for Tea Party primary challengers than 2010. There were no Republican incumbents quite as egregious as Arlen Specter and few establishment-anointed candidates as broadly offensive to conservatives as Charlie Crist.
Facing a less certain electoral environment, there was also the possibility GOP primary voters would become more cautious. While Republicans entered 2012 with the ability to retake the White House and Senate while holding the House, as the year has progressed these outcomes look far from certain.
These facts have helped the conventional wisdom about the Tea Party seesaw with each primary result. When Richard Lugar lost his the Republican nomination for a seventh Senate term, there were ubiquitous headlines proclaiming the movement’s strength. When Orrin Hatch won his, there were nearly as many stories announcing its death.
In truth, the Tea Partiers have a decent overall batting average this year. What they have lost in numbers compared to the midterm elections they have made up for in candidate quality. There are fewer Christine O’Donnells and Carl Paladinos winning GOP primaries, and more conservative primary candidates who seem as capable of winning in November as the Republicans they defeated.
That’s not to say there aren’t any colorful figures unexpectedly upsetting incumbents this year. Twelve-term Florida Republican Rep. Cliff Stearns lost by some 800 votes to political neophyte Ted Yoho, a conservative populist who ran ads likening well-dressed politicians to pigs throwing mud at each other near a trough. The Miami Herald described Yoho as a family man who met his wife in the fourth grade and bought a trailer with her when he was only 21.
Yoho had only one paid staffer but carried 11 out of 13 counties in the district. Stearns wasn’t even particularly moderate. He had led the push against the Obama administration on various energy initiatives and funding for Planned Parenthood. During the 1990s, he championed a Hillarycare alternative that didn’t depend on the individual mandate. But in the end, it was Stearns’s 24 years in Congress that did him in.
The same could be said for Dick Lugar, the Tea Party’s biggest scalp in 2012. Lugar didn’t even really own a home in Indiana anymore. The Democratic-controlled Marion County Election Board initially voted to disqualify Lugar and his wife from voting from the address at which they were registered, a home they had sold back in 1977. Lugar won on appeal, but the damage was done.
Lugar always assumed his deep roots with the Indiana electorate would ultimately save him, which proved to be his undoing. But like John McCain in his race against J.D. Hayworth two years before, Hatch took his conservative challenger seriously and went on the offensive immediately. Having already seen Robert Bennett lose to Mike Lee in his own state, Hatch also modified his voting record: he opposed both Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan for the Supreme Court after a career of voting to confirm Democratic high court nominees; he signed on to the Cap, Cut, and Balance plan championed by the most conservative members of Congress; he voted for Rand Paul’s budget and against the debt-ceiling deal.
Hatch’s only misstep was attacking the “libertarians” who were trying to oust him right when he was on the verge of avoiding a primary altogether. The state convention narrowly forced him to face Utah’s Republican primary voters. Hatch’s luckiest break, however, was when Jason Chaffetz took a pass on the race. Dan Liljenquist, a former state senator, was nowhere near as strong a challenger.
The other supposed rebuke to the Tea Party was Tommy Thompson’s victory in Wisconsin’s Republican senatorial primary. As George W. Bush’s health and human services secretary, Thompson championed Medicare Part D. He had even flirted with early versions of Obamacare and taxpayer-funded embryo-destructive research. Washington Examiner columnist Tim Carney repeatedly blasted Thompson as a “corporate-welfare lobbyist.”
Yet Thompson—a former four-term governor—won with just 34 percent of the vote. Conservatives split their vote between Eric Hovde and Mark Neumann in the four-way race. Hovde finished just three points behind Thompson. It was similar to Indiana in 2010, when Dan Coats won the primary with just 39 percent while the Tea Party vote was split between Marlin Stutzman and John Hostettler.
In Texas, Ted Cruz’s first big victory wasn’t against David Dewhurst. It was consolidating Tea Party support among Republican primary voters, nudging conservative Texas railroad commissioner Michael Williams out of the race to replace Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and outdistancing former ESPN commentator Craig James. That’s what allowed Cruz to make it to the runoff against Dewhurst in the first place.
Not all Tea Party candidates are created equal. Some, like Thomas Massie in Kentucky and Kerry Bentivolio in Michigan, are straight out of the Rand Paul playbook. Massie convincingly won a competitive primary. Bentivolio benefited from Thad McCotter dropping out over a signature-gathering scandal and then beat back an establishment-approved write-in candidate.
In Missouri, Todd Akin beat government-cutter John Brunner by 36 percent to 30 percent in the primary to challenge Sen. Claire McCaskill, a must-win race if the GOP is to retake the Senate. Akin is more of a social conservative, and there is reason to believe of McCaskill’s advertising was aimed at helping him win the primary—a strategy that initially looks promising, given some of Akin’s abortion-related missteps out of the gate.
While Tea Partiers are overwhelmingly pro-life social conservatives, it is fiscal issues that unite the movement. Mitt Romney has recognized these voters by picking Paul Ryan for vice president. Ryan doesn’t exactly have a Tea Party voting record. But without the green-eyeshade mood among so many rank-and-file Republicans, it is hard to imagine Romney rolling the dice on a candidate with Ryan’s entitlement-reform proposals.
It remains to be seen whether all this spells a permanent fiscal realignment in the GOP or just the latest manifestation of the “throw the bums out” attitude that permeates when incumbents are unpopular. But rumors of the Tea Party’s death were greatly exaggerated, and despite Romney’s nomination the party electorate tends to demand conservative candidates when it can get them.
W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and a contributing editor to The American Conservative. Follow him on Twitter.