Commentary Magazine


Topic: 2014 midterms

Did North Carolina Finish the Tea Party?

This morning on MSNBC’s politics show The Daily Rundown, host Chuck Todd described the North Carolina U.S. Senate election as his “desert island” race for 2014. In doing so, Todd was speaking for many political junkies who view it as a bellwether contest that will tell us more about what the midterm elections mean than any other this year. Which is why Thom Tillis’s victory in the Republican primary yesterday is very good news for his party. Tillis, the speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives, defeated Greg Brannon, a libertarian physician and Tea Party favorite who was the beneficiary of a last-minute campaign stop by Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. But by getting more than 45 percent of the vote in a three-way race, Tillis avoided being dragged into a runoff with Brannon that would have helped Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan.

Brannon’s flirtation with 9/11 truthers and other positions would have made him another Todd Akin, the Missouri GOP Senatorial candidate whose gaffes reelected Claire McCaskill and hurt Republicans around the country in 2012. That’s why Hagan spent campaign funds on ads seeking to portray Tillis as insufficiently conservative in the hopes that a Tea Party surge might provide her with an easy opponent. But this primary should scare Democrats not so much because Tillis, who is in a dead heat with Hagan in the polls, is a certain winner, but because it could be a harbinger of a national trend in which liberals can’t count on right-wing activists being able to sabotage the conservative cause. The North Carolina results leave us asking not just whether, as the liberal press keeps insisting, the Tea Party is dead but if Republicans have learned their lesson from 2010 and 2012 when Tea Party outliers like Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell helped snatch defeat from the jaws of victory for the party. North Carolina may be a bellwether of GOP sanity but with Senate primaries in several states yet to come, the answer to that query has yet to be answered.

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This morning on MSNBC’s politics show The Daily Rundown, host Chuck Todd described the North Carolina U.S. Senate election as his “desert island” race for 2014. In doing so, Todd was speaking for many political junkies who view it as a bellwether contest that will tell us more about what the midterm elections mean than any other this year. Which is why Thom Tillis’s victory in the Republican primary yesterday is very good news for his party. Tillis, the speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives, defeated Greg Brannon, a libertarian physician and Tea Party favorite who was the beneficiary of a last-minute campaign stop by Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. But by getting more than 45 percent of the vote in a three-way race, Tillis avoided being dragged into a runoff with Brannon that would have helped Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan.

Brannon’s flirtation with 9/11 truthers and other positions would have made him another Todd Akin, the Missouri GOP Senatorial candidate whose gaffes reelected Claire McCaskill and hurt Republicans around the country in 2012. That’s why Hagan spent campaign funds on ads seeking to portray Tillis as insufficiently conservative in the hopes that a Tea Party surge might provide her with an easy opponent. But this primary should scare Democrats not so much because Tillis, who is in a dead heat with Hagan in the polls, is a certain winner, but because it could be a harbinger of a national trend in which liberals can’t count on right-wing activists being able to sabotage the conservative cause. The North Carolina results leave us asking not just whether, as the liberal press keeps insisting, the Tea Party is dead but if Republicans have learned their lesson from 2010 and 2012 when Tea Party outliers like Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell helped snatch defeat from the jaws of victory for the party. North Carolina may be a bellwether of GOP sanity but with Senate primaries in several states yet to come, the answer to that query has yet to be answered.

The first conclusion to be drawn from North Carolina is an obvious one, but still needs to be restated. Good candidates beat bad candidates while indifferent ones are always vulnerable to upset. In 2010 and 2012 those mainstream Republican candidates that got beaten by Tea Party challengers were either lackluster campaigners like Delaware’s Mike Castle or arrogant out-of-touch incumbents like Indiana’s Richard Lugar. Tea Party candidates also win when they are simply better than their opponents, as was the case with Ted Cruz in Texas. Tillis may not be the North Carolina GOP’s savior, but the veteran state house politician was not going to be outworked by the likes of Brannon, even if he had Rand Paul on his side. 

The second is that the obits about the Tea Party are premature. What many journalists fail to remember is that what happened in 2010 was a sea change in the Republican Party that caused virtually everyone in the party to join with more conservative or libertarian elements to oppose the stimulus boondoggle and ObamaCare. The differences between the so-called establishment that rejoiced at Tillis’s victory and the Tea Party, which is supposedly mourning it, are for the most part tactical rather than ideological. The candidates that mainstream national GOP fundraisers like Karl Rove are backing in primaries are all conservatives, not moderates. What unites them is that they are savvy enough to be able to appeal to independents and conservative Democrats rather than only preaching to the right-wing choir. And where Republicans produce a candidate like Tillis who agrees with the Tea Party on most issues but also is smart enough not to say things that will hurt him in November, they can win primaries as well as have a shot in a general election.

The point is, the Tea Party’s influence is not so much in its ability to generate candidates whose sole purpose is to knock off established Republicans but in influencing the party to remain true to its principles on taxing and spending. After all, few Republicans disagreed about the need to stop ObamaCare prior to last fall’s government shutdown; the disagreement was over whether it was a wise tactic.

Nevertheless, primaries in Georgia, Iowa, and Kentucky will give Republicans other chances to decide whether their goal is ideological purity or a conservative majority in the Senate in January. If mainstream candidates win in these states we will be told the Tea Party is dead. That will be wrong. What will have died if North Carolina is a bellwether is a strain of politics that is bent on tearing the GOP apart. What will survive is a conservative message that has been largely shaped by the Tea Party that has a good chance of sweeping the country this fall, as it did in 2010.

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Ryan-Bashing Makes Dems Status Quo Party

So much has happened in the last three years that it seems like much longer since Democrats thought they could use a backlash against a budget proposal from Rep. Paul Ryan to take back control of the House of Representatives. The trial case was a special election in New York’s 26th Congressional district in which a Democrat took a seat previously held by the Republicans in May of 2011. That race was somewhat misleading since the GOP candidate was hobbled by the presence of a false flag Tea Party candidate on the ballot and Republicans took the seat back the following year. But though the campaign strategy of portraying the House budget chair and his fellow party members pushing grandparents over the cliff never really caught fire elsewhere, Democrats are still enamored of the theme and apparently will try again this year in the wake of Ryan’s latest proposal which will be passed today by his committee.

The headline in the New York Times article on the budget summed up the Democratic approach: “Ryan Budget Would Cut Food Stamps and Medicaid Deeply.” The point of that piece as well as the first salvos from the left is that the GOP is attempting to punish the poor while increasing defense spending and cutting taxes for the wealthy. In a year in which President Obama has sought to distract the public from his domestic and foreign policy failures by claiming that income inequality is the country’s biggest problem, the Ryan budget is perfect fodder for administration talking points helpfully doled out by liberal outlets like the Times. As Politico notes, just as they tried unsuccessfully to do in the last election cycle, Democrats hope they can use Ryan to propel them to victory in 2014.

But while the Wisconsin congressman and 2012 GOP vice presidential candidate may seem like an all-purpose piñata custom designed to boost Democratic fundraising and turnout, Ryan’s serious attempt to deal with the nation’s long-term debt problem is not be quite the gift they think it is. Though Ryan’s effort presents Democrats with a target to shoot at, it also demonstrates again that there is only one political party that is actually thinking about how to deal with the country’s long-term problems and it is not the one headed by Barack Obama.

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So much has happened in the last three years that it seems like much longer since Democrats thought they could use a backlash against a budget proposal from Rep. Paul Ryan to take back control of the House of Representatives. The trial case was a special election in New York’s 26th Congressional district in which a Democrat took a seat previously held by the Republicans in May of 2011. That race was somewhat misleading since the GOP candidate was hobbled by the presence of a false flag Tea Party candidate on the ballot and Republicans took the seat back the following year. But though the campaign strategy of portraying the House budget chair and his fellow party members pushing grandparents over the cliff never really caught fire elsewhere, Democrats are still enamored of the theme and apparently will try again this year in the wake of Ryan’s latest proposal which will be passed today by his committee.

The headline in the New York Times article on the budget summed up the Democratic approach: “Ryan Budget Would Cut Food Stamps and Medicaid Deeply.” The point of that piece as well as the first salvos from the left is that the GOP is attempting to punish the poor while increasing defense spending and cutting taxes for the wealthy. In a year in which President Obama has sought to distract the public from his domestic and foreign policy failures by claiming that income inequality is the country’s biggest problem, the Ryan budget is perfect fodder for administration talking points helpfully doled out by liberal outlets like the Times. As Politico notes, just as they tried unsuccessfully to do in the last election cycle, Democrats hope they can use Ryan to propel them to victory in 2014.

But while the Wisconsin congressman and 2012 GOP vice presidential candidate may seem like an all-purpose piñata custom designed to boost Democratic fundraising and turnout, Ryan’s serious attempt to deal with the nation’s long-term debt problem is not be quite the gift they think it is. Though Ryan’s effort presents Democrats with a target to shoot at, it also demonstrates again that there is only one political party that is actually thinking about how to deal with the country’s long-term problems and it is not the one headed by Barack Obama.

As he did with his previous budget proposals, Ryan does what pundits are always asking Congress to do and actually addresses the country’s budget dilemma and tries to provide a solution. While Democrats are grandstanding about the plight of the poor while proposing ideas like increasing the minimum wage that do more to hurt employment and the needy than help them, Ryan is seeking an answer to the question of how to actually create a new approaching to governing that is not based on kicking the can down the road. His approach to social welfare spending is not, contrary to the mischaracterizations of his opponents, to end them but to reform programs like Medicaid in such a manner as to make them viable in the long term and to provide individual with more choices and control over their coverage. Those government expenditures that he rightly wishes to eliminate are liberal playgrounds such as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and other frills that may please some people but are not the responsibility of government.

The key to his proposal is an effort to cut the “autopilot spending and interest payments” — what he rightly calls the “drivers of our debt.” The point is, unless we address entitlement spending head on, the country’s out-of-control taxing and spending will sink the nation in a sea of red ink that will ensure that promises of future benefits will only be kept by a crippling tax bill that will burden future generations and undermine chances for economic growth. What Ryan is offering the country is reform, not the promises of more government largesse paid for by taxing the rich that is the staple of administration rhetoric. The choice here is not between more help for the poor and a defense of the rich, as liberals would have it, but between an attempt at solving an unsustainable debt problem and a desire to ignore that problem. Ryan’s approach may not be perfect but in attacking him in this manner for having the chutzpah to present a serious proposal for changing the way Washington does business, Democrats are proving once again that they are the status quo party that is unwilling to take a hard look at how to address the nation’s spending addiction.

Ryan’s willingness to present his ideas even though there is no chance that a Democrat-controlled Senate will adopt them provides the president’s party with an opportunity to demagogue the issues. But it also proves that in the competition for ideas, Democrats would rather be the party mired in the past rather than the one that seeks a path to a growing economy unburdened by debt. In a midterm election driven more by concern over bumbling Democrat projects like ObamaCare, which increase the debt and the size of the government, that might not be as smart a strategy as they think it, is.

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