Because the Republican Party will nominate the one candidate who, at least at the outset of the contest, Tea Partiers seemed to have the least affinity for, many political observers have concluded that the movement’s time has come and gone. But as the results from a number of Senate races testify, reports of the Tea Party’s demise are, at best, premature. In Utah, longtime incumbent Senator Orrin Hatch is being forced into a Republican primary to hold on to his seat. But an even better argument for the group as a force that should be reckoned with came in Pennsylvania, where the state GOP establishment’s choice was humiliated in a primary yesterday to determine the party’s nominee to oppose Senator Bob Casey.
While the Pennsylvania GOP Senate race received minimal attention even in the Keystone state, the collapse of Governor Tom Corbett’s attempt to handpick an unknown for the nomination is noteworthy. Corbett and the state party wanted Steve Welch, a 35-year-old entrepreneur who was a registered Democrat as recently as 2009. But Tea Party activists embraced Tom Smith, a coal millionaire from the Western region of the state. Though Smith, 64, was a lifelong Democrat, he was able to harness the anger of the party’s grass roots and won by a huge margin over Welch, and Sam Rohrer, a state representative who also sought to appeal to Tea Partiers.
Though Casey is closely identified with President Obama and might be vulnerable if the Democratic ticket faces a strong challenge from Mitt Romney, he is probably not in much danger of being defeated. Casey, who remains popular despite a lackluster record in the Senate, has enough resources to match Smith’s wealth, and the GOP candidate is not likely to gain much traction outside of western Pennsylvania.
But no matter what happens in November in this race, the idea that the Tea Party is a spent force in the GOP is not realistic. We may get even more evidence of this when Indiana Senator Richard Lugar faces off in a May 8 primary with State Treasurer Richard Mourdock. Unlike a marginal figure like Smith or Tea Party favorites who crashed and burned in the general election in 2010 such as Utah’s Sharon Angle or Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell, Mourdock has a good chance of holding the seat for the GOP if he beats Lugar. If Tea Partiers can topple a Senate institution like Lugar, it will be more proof of the staying power of the movement. As Pennsylvania Governor Corbett and his cronies can tell Lugar, underestimating the Tea Party is a mistake experienced politicians should try to avoid.