Democrats aren’t the only ones feeling gloomy today. Despite the likelihood that the Republican Party will retake the Senate and increase its majority in the House, some Tea Party conservatives look around the country at the GOP’s roster of candidates and say they’ve been cheated. Rather than win by nominating hard-core right-wingers wherever possible, the party has, instead, put forward a more mainstream electoral cast including many that have been labeled, whether fairly or unfairly, as establishment types. That leads people like Erick Erickson to label today’s results a “hollow victory” in a Politico Magazine article. But while many Tea Partiers may share some of his frustration about the GOP establishment, they should reject his reflexive disgust and embrace this opportunity to not only act as a break on the Obama administration’s liberal agenda but to actually govern.
Let’s concede that Erickson and other Tea Partiers are not crazy to be suspicious about the Republican leadership. They remember what happened the last time the GOP had control of both houses of Congress. The reason there is a Tea Party movement is due to the fact that during the George W. Bush administration, the party was rightly perceived to have embraced a tax-and-spend mentality that helped dig the country a hole that it has not yet climbed out of. The pointless discussions about who is a RINO (Republican in name only) inevitably descend into tests of purity whose aim is to demonstrate which conservatives are holier than anyone else. Yet the question of who is a big-government Republican is a serious one that should influence the new freshman class of Senators and Representatives to avoid the mistakes made during the reign of error presided over by former Speaker Denny Hastert and House Majority Leader Tom Delay.
But Erickson’s animus seems not to be so much focused on whether the next Republican majority will avoid the temptations of big government and resume spending like drunken sailors as it is on those that sought to avoid the kind of disasters that cost the party golden opportunities to win the Senate in 2010 and 2012. Erickson is still angry with national Republican political consultants such as Karl Rove and people like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell who worked hard to recruit Senate candidates based on whether they could win rather than on their conservative purity. The result was that Tea Party insurgents in states like Kansas and Mississippi were defeated and establishment Republicans won.
Not all of these decisions were wise. Certainly, the GOP must look back at the effort to ensure that Pat Roberts was given the party’s Senate nomination rather than a Tea Party rebel with some mixed feelings. Roberts is the poster child for out-of-touch incumbents who richly deserve to be retired rather than given a ticket for another six years in Washington. If Roberts loses his Kansas seat today—especially if the GOP falls one seat short of a majority—Tea Partiers will never let the establishment live that one down. Conservatives also still have hard feelings over the way the party leadership went all-out to save incumbent Thad Cochran in Mississippi even though he is another senator that grew roots in D.C. and replacing him as a nominee would not have cost the party the seat.
Erickson also takes a shot at Thom Tillis in North Carolina and David Perdue in Georgia. Both are not incumbents but still represent an establishment mentality that provides voters with unattractive choices rather than a fresh and principled conservative alternative.
This critique is consistent with the theme we’ve heard from many conservatives about the pitfalls of Republicans nominating so-called moderates for president like John McCain or Mitt Romney. This thesis holds that the party alienates its base and creates millions of missing Republican voters by putting forward certain losers without the passion of true conservatives. To that indictment, Erickson adds that this is largely the fault of consultants who profit handsomely from such losses.
There is something to be said for the argument that merely nominating respectable losers does nothing to advance the conservative cause or to stop the growth of the big-government monster that is devouring the U.S. economy and stealing more of our individual freedom every year. But the idea that the only choice before the GOP is between nominating fat cat losers and principled conservative winners is, like the straw men that President Obama likes to use as his favorite rhetorical device, a false choice. What Republicans need is not so much Tea Party fervor as it is political skill.
What Hastert and the K Street caucus that profited from past Republican majorities taught us is that Republicans need to be about more than just attempts to buy votes with government pork. But in 2010 and 2012, the right also taught it that putting forward candidates who can’t win the support of a majority of voters isn’t too smart either. Without the Tea Party insisting on nominating Sharron Angle for a Nevada race, Harry Reid would have been defeated in 2010. Nor should anyone on the right forget that putting forward Christine O’Donnell rather than a respectable GOP moderate ensured that the Democrats would win a seat in Delaware that they are likely to hold for a long time. The disdain for national leaders attempting to vet Senate candidates also seems absurd given what happened in Missouri when Rep. Todd Akin (an extreme social conservative rather than a Tea Partier) not only threw away a certain defeat of Democrat Claire McCaskill but also tarnished the Republican brand around the nation with his idiotic comments about rape and pregnancy.
These lessons should be remembered even when we look at what seem like reasonable criticisms of the establishment by Erickson. While re-nominating Roberts and even Cochran may be classified as unforced errors, what he’s leaving out of the discussion is the very real possibility that loose cannons such as Milton Wolf and Chris McDaniel might have sunk the party. In particular, it can be argued that keeping McDaniel, a former radio talker with a paper trail of wild comments a mile long, out of the general election might have been the smartest thing the GOP did all year since he might have been the 2014 version of Akin.
The question of what Republicans do with their majority if they win it is something we’ll find out in 2015. But you can’t govern without winning elections and that is something the Tea Party hasn’t always mastered. Too often, some of them seem more interested in fighting and destroying their slightly less conservative party opponents than in beating Democrats and then governing. Sour grapes from Tea Partiers about “hollow victories” strikes me as being just as absurd as the excuses already put forward by Democrats about why they are losing this election. If Rove, McConnell, and Co. have stopped them from blowing up another chance for a Republican majority, that is something that even the most dedicated conservatives should be celebrating tonight.