This might be the year of the state senator. That’s not necessarily a good thing. It’s how Barack Obama got his start. Several ambitious state senators are challenging incumbent Republican senators, and the prospect of surprises from the heartland terrifies the Republican establishment.
Some incumbents apparently no longer actually live in the states they represent, having outgrown their bucolic origins and aspire to the undisturbed life in Hollywood on the Potomac, bathed in the twinkle and tinsel of an ersatz Hollywood.
The patricians of the Republican establishment — party moguls from yesteryear, aspiring kingmakers, PAC artists and corporate patriots — are trying to kill the Tea Party graveyard dead, so the patricians can retreat to the gentle Capitol Hill life of going along to get along. Tea Party zealots, who think passion and zealotry in the cause of reform is what the market is waiting for, are out to teach the party establishment to treat them with a little respect. No more Rodney Dangerfield.
Establishment Republicans, with their green-eyeshade DNA, are always afraid of controversy, and learn to deal with it reluctantly, and usually not very well. This puts them at disadvantage, often fatal, with Democrats, who love hubbub, chaos and brawling. “Democrats are like alley cats,” a wise old party elder in the South once observed. “Democrats fight, and alley cats fight, and the result is more Democrats and more cats.”
Tea Party Republicans usually come equipped with more fire and zeal than smarts and moxie, but they’re learning. In the recent past they had to learn the hard way with little help from the experienced party establishment. The Republicans might have taken the Senate four years ago if several of the party regulars who could have helped inept nominees had not jeered from the sidelines after their candidates lost in the primary.
Several Democratic senators were begging to be picked off, but incompetent nominees, including two who said dumb things about rape and abortion, saved the Democratic majority. They were left twisting slowly, slowly in the wind. Two years ago, the establishment got the candidates it wanted in North Dakota, Ohio and Montana, and lost just like the Tea Party upstarts.
The Tea Party, says Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, who managed the National Republican Senatorial Committee in 2010 and 2012, says the Tea Party movement “was the wind at our backs in 2010,” but when fissures opened the party produced “candidates who could get nominated but who couldn’t get elected, and that’s obviously not the goal.”
Two upstarts this year are state senators, Joni Ernst in Iowa and Chris McDaniel in Mississippi. Mrs. Ernst looks like a fashionable Junior League matron, rides a Harley hog, commands the largest battalion in the Iowa National Guard as an Army lieutenant colonel (her husband is a retired sergeant major), and talks like an earthy Democrat. She boasts that as an Iowa farm girl she learned to castrate hogs and that will make her effective in cutting pork in Washington. Some Iowans thought this was in bad taste, but her polls number jumped at once. She emerged from also-ran to contender almost overnight.
Mr. McDaniel has mounted the most brazen challenge of all, as Republicans define brazen. He’s challenging Sen. Thad Cochran, who is running for his seventh term, and he has the endorsement of every Republican who ever sat on a veranda at the country club, sipping pink gin or a Pimm’s No. 1 cup.
Mr. McDaniel, like any well -brought-up Southerner, shows the senator, 76, respect and due deference, but argues that he’s not conservative enough and that six terms is enough for anyone. The Republican establishment, led in Mississippi by Haley Barbour, the former governor, likes the senator for the reason that Mr. McDaniel doesn’t. He’s the king of pork and the emperor of earmarks, just the sort Joni Ernst wants to confront with her pig shears.
The senator has a shrinking lead in the polls, but has little organization — until this year he never needed one — and he lent credence to the charge that he’s out of touch with Mississippi when it was discovered that he lists a rented Capitol Hill basement apartment as his “primary residence.” This is only a little more persuasive than the “rented room with bath” in Dodge City that Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas lists as his Kansas residence. Mr. Roberts is hotly pursued by Milton Wolf, locally infamous as the second cousin, once removed, of Barack Obama. Suddenly, the Republicans are getting to be fun.
Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.