Meet the New GOP Establishment: The Tea Party
A victory in Indiana changes the electoral landscape.
May 10, 2012 -- The Tea Party was born out of a hatred for the establishment. Led by flamethrowers like Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann and Marco Rubio, Tea Partiers wanting to "shake things up" in Washington sided with conservative challengers to mainstream Republicans and sent them to Congress.
Now it might be time for the Tea Party and the establishment to share a ride.
The Tea Party's latest victory came this week in Indiana, where the longtime moderate Sen. Dick Lugar lost a primary race to the more conservative Richard Mourdock. (Somewhere in Maine, Olympia Snowe could be seen scowling.)
On Wednesday, the establishment-bucking Mourdock stood side by side with Indiana's governor, Mitch Daniels, a conservative so mainstream that not only did he endorse Lugar, but he's a top-tier favorite among Republicans to be Mitt Romney's running mate. Daniels called for unity and said that Mourdock is "right out of the heart, right out of the mainstream of our party."
For Monica Boyer, a founder of one of the many Tea Party groups in Indiana, the moment meant it's time for mainstream Republicans to get on board.
"We have forced their hand," Boyer said. "Everyone has been put on notice."
Tea Party Patriots, a national group, announced at the same time that it had raised more than $12 million in the year that ended May 31, 2011. Tea Party leaders use that figure and political successes such as Mourdock's win to argue that they haven't vanished, even if they aren't draping Capitol Hill in rallies as they did in the most heated days of debate over the Affordable Care Act.
Asked if it's time for the Tea Party to link arms with the establishment, Tea Party Patriots co-founder Jenny Beth Martin replied, "It's time for the establishment to link arms with the Tea Party's core values and get in line with the rest of America."
"The establishment's been out of touch," she said.
The jury has not delivered a verdict on whether the Tea Party deserves the credit for ousting Lugar. After all, his opponent is a sitting statewide official, not a gadfly like Christine O'Donnell. Lugar's own shortcomings as a candidate -- he didn't even own a home in Indiana -- and his 35-year tenure in Washington made it easy to label him as out of touch.
Though it's worth noting that so-called survivors of GOP primary challenges, such as Arizona's John McCain and, most likely, Utah's Orrin Hatch, are also Senate veterans who have worked with Democrats — a blasphemous credential to some Tea Partiers. But they won by abandoning their mainstream past. Remember McCain's "build that dang fence" ad?
Hatch, too, has changed his official views of policies he once supported so that he could appear more conservative. He regrets his vote for the bank bailout, opposes immigration provisions he once supported and voted against renewing a children's health care program despite helping to create it.
In that sense, the Tea Party has won the war even if it loses a couple of battles.
"We've absolutely changed the narrative," said Amy Kremer, the chairwoman of the Tea Party Express. "Now it's not just Republicans talking about cutting spending. It's Democrats doing the same."
One GOP strategist who has been involved in races on behalf of Tea Party candidates said that "the 2010 environment hasn't gone away – the establishment has accommodated itself to a new paradigm."
Stephen Erwin, a founder of another Tea Party group in Indiana, predicted that the conservative base in battleground Indiana would turn out fiercely in November because of one stat in the primary race: Mourdock led Lugar by about 10 points shortly before the vote, and he won by about 20 points. The extra 10, Erwin said, came from "enthusiasm" among conservatives and the Tea Party.
"We've just sent a message to the Republican establishment that if they get control of Congress again, they better not do all the tax and spend stuff that they did," he said.