Our panel of experts reports on the first national elections of the Tea Party era.
W. James Antle III
Heading into the midterm elections, the country faced a dilemma: although there was little evidence the Republicans were ready to be trusted with power, it was clear that the Democrats needed to be stopped. The voters had no other alternative but to give the GOP control of the House, a majority of the nation’s governorships, and substantial gains in the Senate.
The primary process did improve the Republican ranks. Thanks in large part to the Tea Party, many principled conservatives emerged victorious against time-serving establishment hacks. Senators Rand Paul, Pat Toomey, and Marco Rubio are just three examples of the dividends this hard work paid in the November election. But for many Republicans, this triumph remains an undeserved gift from Obama-weary voters.
So what is next? There are two lessons to be learned from the recently defeated Democrats. First, give credit where it’s due: the Obama-Pelosi-Reid Democrats used their power to advance their principles. Their principles may not be admirable, but their willingness to stick to them in the face of immense political risk surely was.
When was the last time you saw Republicans taking similar risks on domestic policy? What did they have to show for their 55-45 Senate majority after the 2004 elections? Power is a temporary thing that must be used wisely. The last Republican Congress did little for the country and ultimately failed to salvage the majority.
Second, it is by now clear that the Democrats never understood the disconnect between the two distinct groups of voters that put them in power: their enthusiastic liberal base, which wanted to move the country to the left, and the independents, who simply wanted to fire the Republicans. Though obvious in hindsight, this was an easy mistake to make. The independents seemed to agree with the Democratic base that the Iraq war was a mistake, that the economy was in shambles, and that health care needed to be reformed.
Republicans have been returned to power by two distinct groups of voters: their enthusiastic conservative base, which wants to move the country to the right, and the independents, who wanted to fire the Democrats. The independents agree with the Republican base that the health care bill was a mistake, that the economy remains in shambles, and that the federal government cannot continue to spend money it does not have.
So that is the new dilemma: how do the Republicans address these problems without finding themselves in the same position as the Democrats? The country does need entitlement reform, a genuine free market in health care, and a return to limited government. But it will not be easy for the Republicans to deliver these things, even if Obama would let them, without shattering the electoral coalition that makes their new power possible.
How successful Republicans can be at squaring this circle will determine whether this was a meaningful victory or just another wasted opportunity.
W. James Antle III is associate editor of The American Spectator.
Politics isn’t science. We learn this again with every election. At least I do. Polls and numbers on campaign spending only take us so far. A lot of unexpected things occur. For years, Republicans made a major effort to defeat Democratic Rep. Melissa Bean of Illinois, recruiting good candidates, spending money, and all the rest. This year they gave up. And what happened? Joe Walsh, who identified himself with the Tea Party movement and got little help from the Republican Party, was wildly outspent. He won. Chip Cravaack, a former Northwest Airlines pilot, was ignored outside Minnesota in his campaign against Democrat Jim Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation Committee. No chance of winning, right? He whipped Oberstar in their single debate and won the election. Surprised me. And there was Renee Ellmers, a nurse who defeated Democratic Rep. Bob Etheridge of North Carolina. Totally unexpected.
I was struck by two other things in the midterm election. One was the amazingly high quality of Republican House candidates. They were superior to the party’s Senate candidates, with a few exceptions (Rob Portman, Carly Fiorina, Ron Johnson). Allen West, a retired Army officer, ousted Democratic Rep. Ron Klein in Florida. He was a terrific candidate. He and Tim Scott of South Carolina will expand the number of African American Republicans in the House from zero to two. During the campaign, I met Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, who ran for the House against Democratic incumbent Deborah Halverson. He, at age 32, was an enormously poised candidate and won going away. Another surprisingly impressive Republican was Jon Runyan, the former offensive tackle for the Philadelphia Eagles. He knocked off Democratic Rep. John Adler of New Jersey. At 6-foot-7 and 330, Runyan will add heft to the House Republican caucus.
The other was the wipeout of Democrats in the South. The Republican takeover has taken decades, but now it’s near completion. Republicans won new House seats everywhere: Virginia (3), North Carolina (1), South Carolina (1), Georgia (1), Florida (4), Alabama (1), Tennessee (3), Mississippi (2), Louisiana (1), Arkansas (2). And that’s in addition to winning seven Senate races and losing none, plus five governorships, all in the South. Tennessee now becomes one of the most Republican states in the nation. Alabama has a Republican legislature (both houses) for the first time since Reconstruction. The gains in the South are unlikely to be undone in the foreseeable future. Was a sweep of this magnitude expected? Not by me.
The election also produced one instant star in Washington — Marco Rubio, the new senator from Florida. Jeb Bush said that when he hears Rubio speak, it brings tears to his eyes. I wouldn’t go that far. Okay, maybe my eyes did dampen a bit when I listened to Rubio’s stump speech.
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