Host to one of the purest strains of conservatism in the nation (ranked only behind Mississippi and Wyoming by Gallup), Utah is the perfect Tea Party test tube. Its primary system, which relies on a nominating convention where party delegates get a say before candidates go to a popular vote, distills the purest form of activist sentiment. The state was the site of the first Republican incumbent defeat in 2010, when the brewsters toppled three-term Senator Bob Bennett, a watershed moment in an election cycle that saw not only Mike Lee claim victory over the establishment, but Rand Paul, Sharron Angle, Christine O’Donnell, Carl Paladino, Ken Buck and Joe Miller as well. Utah was ground zero for the whole thing. But on Monday, something surprising happened.
Jason Chaffetz, the Tea-infused two-term Rep. who won his seat in Congress in 2008 by running to the right of incumbent Chris Cannon (endorsed by no less than George W. Bush himself) and who championed the conservative Cut, Cap & Balance fantasy budget, announced he will not challenge veteran Republican Senator Orrin Hatch in a primary next year.
Citing a desire to avoid a “multimillion-dollar bloodbath,” Chaffetz broke widely held expectations with his decision not to pursue Hatch. While it’s true that the 77-year-old entrenched Senator has spent the better part of a year scrambling right — he seemed to take note of Bennett’s downfall — and filling a formidable campaign warchest, the nominating convention would have given Chaffetz a decent shot at taking down his opponent without ever facing voters. Besides, being outspent would hardly be novel to Chaffetz, who was up against a six-to-one fundraising disadvantage in ’08, and Tea Party types have rarely shied away from fighting above their weight class. Chaffetz’s decision to pass on a Senate run may be a leading indicator that the Tea Party’s most powerful tool isn’t as sharp as it once was.
The Tea Party’s potency, in essence, derives from primary threats. 2010 was the year of the Tea Party not because of health reform protests or Nancy Pelosi’s ouster from the Speakership, but because Republicans like Bennett in Utah, Charlie Crist in Florida, Mike Castle in Delaware and so on paid an electoral price for their perceived apostasies. Though Chaffetz is just one candidate (and Hatch could still face defeat without him in the race), it’s beginning to look as if the Tea Partyers are not the enforcers they once were. Of the eight GOP Senators facing re-election in 2012, six were the subject of Tea Party challenge whispers after last year’s coup: Utah’s Hatch, Maine Rockefeller Republican Olympia Snowe, Massachusetts’ Scott Brown, Dick Lugar in Indiana, and, somewhat marginally, Tennessee’s Bob Corker and Mississippi’s Roger Wicker. With the most credible challenger out of the way in Utah, Hatch is in good shape; Snowe has attracted several fringe challengers, but they look, at this point, poised to fade; nothing has materialized against Brown yet; the same can be said of Corker and Wicker; and while Lugar has found himself in a legitimate knife fight with Indiana State Treasurer Richard Mourdock, there’s a possibility that a three-way race might benefit the incumbent.
There are, of course, several important caveats to all this. Chaffetz’s decision might be a one-off. It’s difficult to say what the political environment will be come next November. Effective primary challengers might just emerge from the woodwork. Or not. Wave elections don’t happen every cycle.
But ultimately, the success of the Tea Party can be measured by the policy positions it’s able to force. Whether Snowe wins re-election or not, 2010 put enough of a scare in her that she flipped to supporting an earmarks ban, a major conservative coup. The 2011 budget process was pushed rightward by the Tea Party; deeper, if unsatisfying to many, cuts were won. Summer debt deal negotiations were drawn out by conservatives, but the majority of Tea Partyers in Congress eventually held their noses and voted for the compromise, despite the fact that it was unpalatable to the grassroots. As with Bennett and the toxic TARP vote in 2008, the debt deal might prove to be a catalyst for future Tea Party insurrections. But for now, it seems that threat, along with the Tea Party’s power, has peaked.