Political Hay

Defying the Death Watchers

The Tea Party's remarkable victory in the House.

By 10.31.12

"Bring out yer dead!"

The left spent the last two years shouting the famous Monty Python line at the Tea Party, determined to infect the movement with cadaverous gloom. By mid-2011 the press had started a death watch. "Tea Party's heyday could be nearing end," warned the Hill. "Tea Party movement looks stalled," exhorted ABC News.

A poll by CBS/New York Times (and when are they ever not reliable?) alleged that Tea Partiers were less popular than Democrats, Muslims, and atheists. Also Stalinists, Imperial Stormtroopers, and the Jersey Shore cast. Loony Tea Party ideas, declared serious people with pale faces wearing suits, had finally been stopped -- and in the nick of time.

But despite the death knells, Republicans in the House of Representatives, swelled by Tea Party legislators who flooded Congress in 2010, are poised to keep their majority this year.

And the margin may be wide. Real Clear Politics counts 195 seats as safe Republican, compared to 154 as safe Democrat. Throw in likely and leaning seats, and Republicans keep the lead 226-183. That leaves 26 toss-up races. And while twice as many toss-ups are for incumbent Republicans than Democrats, Democrats could win every toss-up and still not control the House.

The likely scenario is that Democrats pick up a pittance of seats, John Boehner keeps his gavel, and the House remains a legislative idea shop for conservatives.

The lower chamber has gotten almost no attention. There's far more froth coming from the presidential race and the Senate. And with vacancies inevitable on the 5-4 Supreme Court, the entire federal government is looking competitive this election, except for the Tea Party House.

"Bring out yer… wait, what?"

The Washington Post noticed this over the weekend. "Such a result," the Post observed, "will have defied the chorus of prognosticators who saw so many of these inexperienced freshmen as beneficiaries of blind political luck -- swept up in the 2010 wave of sentiment against Obama and presumably poised to be swept back to sea when the tide went out this November."

That turning of the tides has been the conventional wisdom since November 3, 2010. It's become an article of faith in the media that the Tea Party is the weak underbelly of the GOP and that Responsible Republicans must heroically Save Their Party by distancing themselves from The Extreme Right, The Far Right, and the Party's Crazy House Wing.

People tend to vote for ideologies or parties in the House, and candidates in the Senate. Which means that voters are about to send extremist, wild-eyed, defund-everything-in-sight Republican right-wingism back to the House this fall (and after the left tried to warn them!). The narrative is about to fall apart.

The Post tries to console Democrats by claiming that several high-profile Tea Party lawmakers are "fighting for their political lives." Among these stragglers are Rep. Michele Bachmann (leading by 6 or 9 depending on the poll), Rep. Allen West (leading by 9 or 1), and Rep. Steve King (leading by 3, 2, or 7). The only one in serious trouble is Rep. Joe Walsh, who won his Illinois district by less than 300 votes in 2010 and has an unusually strong Democrat opponent this time around.

"Bring out yer dead…maybe? Please?"

Part of this is due to redistricting. The Tea Party's victory in 2010 allowed it to redraw the congressional maps, shoring up Republicans and exposing already-vulnerable Blue Dog Democrats.

And some concern about the Tea Party is borne out by polling which shows a plummet in the movement's popularity, especially after the debt ceiling negotiations last year.

But this free fall is limited to the label "Tea Party." Most of the movement's core issues still poll well. Repealing Obamacare is more popular now than in 2010. The national deficit and debt ranks just below unemployment as the biggest economic problem. Americans prefer a smaller government by more than 20 points. Obama's stimulus package, the centerpiece of his demand-side economic plan, receives majority disapproval.

The Tea Party knocked down moderates Richard Lugar and David Dewhurst earlier this year, gave Mitt Romney stiff competition that moved him to the right in the Republican primary, and will hold onto the House in November. That's an impressive workout for a movement that supposedly died sixteen times over the past two years.

The Tea Party may ultimately end up a political kamikaze, sacrificing itself for its ideals. Going up against party establishments and telling voters the free ride must end are bruising tasks. That the Tea Party still shifted the discussion, continues to persevere, and will maintain a beachhead in the House this fall is a feat of survival. It deserves to be recognized.

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About the Author

Matt Purple is an editor at Rare.us.