Who is winning the internal Republican civil war: the Tea Party insurgency or the party establishment? Increasingly, it doesn’t matter anymore.
The Tea Party insurgency burst onto the scene in 2010, helping sweep Republicans to a majority in the House of Representatives on a wave of populist conservative backlash against Obama’s health care reform, deficit-driven “stimulus” spending, and the bank bailouts. But the 2012 presidential campaign showed its weakness, as Republicans let a chance to control the Senate slip through their fingers by nominating candidates too extreme to win general elections. After Republicans lost the Senate and the White House that year, party leaders put out a manifesto about the way forward: Republican National Committee chairman Reince Preibus commissioned a report that argued for moving away from the angry white guy image with aggressive recruitment among women, Latinos, and African Americans, and looking for more constructive policies aimed at the middle class as well as a “positive solutions on immigration.”
But then the Tea Party wing reasserted its power: its Republican allies in Congress flirted with defaulting on the national debt and ended up shutting down the federal government for 16 days in a failed effort to stop Obama’s health care law. The cataclysmic gestures damaged the economy, and the party’s image took a beating in the opinion polls. Tea Party influence looked as if it was on the wane.
More blows to the Tea Party’s challenge to the party establishment came when the leader of the Republican minority in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, defeated his Tea Party primary challenger in Kentucky last month, as did Senator Lindsey Graham in South Carolina on Tuesday, in closely watched races.
But Tuesday’s surprise loss by Eric Cantor in a race virtually no one predicted would even be close has emboldened the Tea Party once more. His challenger, a little-known college professor, Dave Brat, took a hard-line position on immigration and beat Cantor by ten points – despite polls predicting a massive lead for the incumbent. Cantor raised $5.5 million dollars — to Brat’s $200,000. Cantor bought expensive television ads, Brat had the power of conservative talk radio that focused on Cantor’s alleged willingness to work with Democrats on an immigration deal that might allow some path to legalization for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrations in the U.S. – a position that 51 percent of Republican voters say they agree with, though not the most conservative faction that tends to turn out most heavily in primary elections.
Calling Cantor “pro-amnesty,” Brat pledged that if elected, he would not compromise.
Some political analysts say that the real reason Cantor lost is that he neglected his constituents while focusing on his Washington career; Graham, after all, has embraced immigration reform but prevailed in his primary anyway. But the message on immigration has been received by many Republicans and there are now widespread predictions that the prospects for immigration reform are dead in the Congress. The risk of compromising with Democrats appears simply too high.
If that turns out to be true, it will show that the Tea Party doesn’t need a widespread victory to exert a powerful influence over the Republican Party. It only needs one high-profile scalp an election cycle to make every Congressional Republican fear that next time it might be his or hers.
That leaves the Republican Party looking more like a coalition government – unable to move ahead on issues that have the agreement of the majority of its members unless the minority faction agrees.
The American political system was designed to have checks and breaks on power that often makes governing cumbersome and messy. In the Tea Party faction, they now have one more.