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Myth: The Tea Party Lost the 2012 Senate Elections for the GOP

Establishment Candidates Went 0 for 8 in Toss-up States

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Myth: The Tea Party Lost the 2012 Senate Elections for the GOP
Mark Wilson - Getty Images News

When it comes to elections, the GOP Establishment has set an incredibly high standard for tea party candidates: they must when every election. Perfection is the only option, otherwise they simply prove that the movement is destroying the Republican chances at everything. Never mind that the only reason Obamacare passed in the first place is because of the 60-seat, filibuster-proof majority by Democrats in the US Senate that the unpopular pre-tea party GOP couldn't stop. Clearly the establishment knew how to win elections before those pesky conservatives came along. After all, if a 40-seat minority in the Senate, a 79-seat deficit in the House of Representatives, an outgoing Republican President with flat-lining job approval numbers, and a 2008 Republican presidential nominee who couldn't raise a fraction of what was needed to compete with Barack Obama didn't prove the GOP Establishment had everything under control, what could? (Don't worry, that 2008 elections would be blamed on Sarah Palin, obviously.)

And of course that standard is never one they must follow. In 2010, straight-up tea party candidates went 5-2 in the general election, including an unlikely win in Wisconsin. Two more of those wins were against establishment backed candidates who later  became Democrats after losing. (And the establishment is going to lecture the tea party on the candidates they pick? At least they are Republicans.) That's not even counting another 4 winning Republicans that the tea party agreed with the establishment on or the Scott Brown fueled victory in Massachusetts. But yes, tea party candidates lost two seats in two states that Barack Obama twice won by double digits. I'm sure the establishment would have picked the right candidates, because they "always" do. And if you don't believe me, I'll once again refer you to Senate election in 2006 and 2008. They did a bang up job.

2012: Wake-up Call for the Establishment

Just as in 2008, the results of the 2012 election would also be the fault of the tea party. Remember the standard: the tea party must win every single race, or else everything is their fault. A January 2013 Hill piece looking ahead to 2014 Senate races and featuring many prominent establishment Republicans stated that "while Republicans are feeling increasingly optimistic, they are stopping short of bold public predictions, remembering the dashed expectations of recent election cycles in which Tea Party candidates torpedoed their chances." That's a fairly matter-of-fact statement that is matter-of-factually bizarre. To criticize 2010, when the tea party fueled a takeover of the US House and brought the Republicans Senate deficit from 20 to less than half that, is a joke. So, what really happened in 2012?

Mitt Romney was the Republican nominee for President. Proving the establishment knows how to pick them, that worked out great? Almost as well as John McCain. (I actually thought Romney turned out to be a great candidate, all things considered.) There wasn't a "crazy" vice-president pick to scapegoat, either. It would turn out that the new establishment pick barely made any ground from the previous losing establishment pick, despite a boatload of issues to campaign on. Now let's move on to the US Senate where the GOP lost a net of two seats in 2012. Keep in mind that the tea party movement is blamed for the GOP not gaining any ground here.

Reality: Tea Party goes 2-1

The "tea party" movement effectively sent three candidates who won primary upsets to the general election to face Democrats. Ted Cruz won easily in Texas and mostly credited Sarah Palin for the final surge in support during the primary. Deb Fischer in Nebraska flipped a Democratic seat red after winning the primary on little more than... a Sarah Palin endorsement. The third tea party candidate was Richard Murdock of Indiana who rocked the establishment by knocking out Richard Lugar, someone who would easily round out a Charlie Crist/Arlen Specter trio. Lugar was referred to as Obama's favorite Republican and is now supporting liberal Democrats. Fine, the tea party gets the blame for losing one seat. What about the rest of the seats the GOP was set to win?

Harder Reality: Establishment Picks Tumble Hard

For the most part, the establishment picks made it to the general election, not the tea party candidates. We will only look at competitive seats here, and there were a lot of them. In Virginia, the establishment picked George Allen to run for his old seat as he was the determined to be the "most electable." He lost by 6 points, but we haven't heard anything about it since. But if primary challenger Jamie Radtke had upset him in the primary and went on to lose the general election by 6, the tea party would have never heard the end of it. In Florida, the establishment backed Connie Mack IV early on and they scared off most of the tea party challengers. Florida is a state the "unelectable" Marco Rubio won two years earlier by double digits while Mack, the sensible establishment pick, would go  on to lose by 13.

Congressman Pete Hoekstra in Michigan stopped a conservative activist in the primary and then went on to lose in the general election by 20 points. Romney lost the state by a less embarrassing 9 points. Red Montana was supposed to be an easy win as the establishment recruited Denny Rehberg to challenge an unpopular incumbent. He lost by 4 points, while Romney won with the same voters by 13. New Mexico was also supposed to be competitive, and moderate Heather Wilson lost by 6 points. North Dakota was another "easy" win for the GOP as the long-serving Democratic incumbent of this red state retired rather than face the voters post-Obamacare. The GOP picked congressman Rick Berg who defeated former Americans for Prosperity leader Duane Sane in the GOP primary. It's okay, I'm sure this pick worked out. After all, Romney won the state by 20. Nope, Berg lost too.

Finally, the GOP figured they could duplicate tea party candidate Ron Johnson's 2010 success by nominating a "popular" and "electable" candidate of their own. They went for the exact opposite of what Ron Johnson was and instead former Governor Tommy Thompson was the pick to win it all. Afraid of losing re-election, the Democratic incumbent bailed leaving Thompson a pretty good shot to take the state. He squeaked by a pair of tea party candidates in the primary and then... went on to lose by more than 5 points in the general election.

Two other competitive races were Ohio - where the GOP and establishment agreed on the candidate, so we won't count that against either side - and in Missouri -  where Republican Todd Akin would suffer from repetitive foot-in-mouth syndrome. Akin is an interesting case as he would later be pegged as the "tea party candidate" though both of his primary opponents had far more tea party support while he had the support of the moderate establishment. (Further, he was a big part of the reason Mourdock lost in Indiana by getting the say-something-stupid-on-abortion hysteria in full swing. So, he may have single-handily cost the GOP 2 seats.)

Myth Busted?

It won't prevent the media from saying it. It won't stop the establishment from criticizing tea party candidates as the "problem" with GOP electoral issues. In 2012, a tea party candidate lost one seat: Indiana. The establishment picks lost what they decided were 50/50 shots in Missouri, Virginia, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Montana, New Mexico, Michigan, and Florida. If they were 50/50 shots to win, they should have won at least half of the competitive seats. They went 0 for 8. They failed to win a single seat, while the tea party candidates failed to win one. But yes, let's continue to say that the "tea party" has set the GOP back electorally. Perhaps the better questions is: what would have been the result if we would have nominated 8 tea party candidates in these competitive races? It couldn't have been worse. Luckily for the establishment, going 0 for 8 apparently doesn't make them part of the problem.

 

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