Whatever the fate of the slate of “tea party” candidates running in November, conservatives say this year’s primary season already has changed the Republican Party for the better.
They say Republican leaders are finally respecting the tea-party movements disgust with politicians who campaign to limit governments size and slash spending, but vote to do the opposite once in Congress, and are realizing the perils of ignoring the voters attracted to the movements message.
“All of a sudden, the Washington political insiders have lost control of the Republican Party’s machinery, and there is a more powerful grass-roots movement out there on the conservative side than at any time in American history — stronger than the 1964 Goldwater movement, the 1976 Reagan movement, and grass-roots-led takeover of Congress in 1994,” said former Texas GOP Chairman Tom Pauken.
The influence of the movement on Capitol Hill was on display Wednesday when the Senate GOP’s campaign fundraising arm quickly pivoted from having operatives indicate it wouldnt fund insurgent candidate Christine O’Donnell’s bid to win the Delaware Senate contest to vowing its full financial support.
The NRSC, as well as former Bush 2000 and 2004 strategist Karl Rove and a host of other Republican establishment leaders and organizations, had angered much of the party’s traditional base as well as the tea-party activists by not just backing Ms. O’Donnell’s GOP rival, Rep. Michael N. Castle, in Tuesday’s primary, but by attacking her character and motives.
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the NRSC chairman, warmly endorsed Ms. O’Donnell and pledged to donate to her campaign $42,000, the maximum allowed under federal campaign-finance law, as she enters a dead-heat race with Democratic New Castle County Executive Chris Coons.
Mr. Castle had been expected to easily defeat Mr. Coons for the seat long held by now-Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. Ms. O’Donnell’s victory puts back in play a Senate seat Republicans had counted on in the effort to retake control of the chamber.
“Republican voters in Delaware didn’t want Castle at all, but not because of a backlash against the entire Republican Party establishment — that’s phony,” said Gary Aldrich, president of the Patrick Henry Institute for Individual Liberty. “They didn’t want Castle specifically because of his record, not because of some national theory about rebellion of the establishment.”
Given a conservative alternative, Republican primary voters have knocked out incumbent Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski for tea party backed Joe Miller, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist’s Senate run in favor of Marco Rubio, and in Kentucky chose Senate candidate Rand Paul over establishment candidate Trey Grayson.
Several traditional conservatives predict the GOP’s leaders are bound to move toward limited government and fiscal restraint as tea partiers infiltrate the ranks of the caucuses.
“The Republicans need a net gain of 10 seats in the Senate to take control, but even if they win only seven of those 10, that is enough to make the GOP Senate conference more conservative,” says American Conservative Union Chairman David A. Keene.
He and others argue that Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky always follows the election returns and will do so again after the midterms, adjusting his agenda to a more conservative team of Senate Republicans, many of whose votes he will lose if he fails to move to the right on policy.
The same argument can be made for moving the plans and actions of House GOP leader John A. Boehner of Ohio. He is expected to be elected House speaker if his party wins a majority in that chamber.
Mr. Boehner, very much in the mold of his GOP predecessors, has practiced the politics of the practical during his long career. He is not an icon of traditional conservatives or the new tea-party activists.