The Tea Party’s New Model: Experienced Candidates Magnifying Movement’s Influence

  • Share
  • Read Later
Johnny Hanson / Houston Chronicle / AP

U.S. Senate candidate Ted Cruz speaks to a cheerful crowd after he defeated Republican rival, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in a runoff election for the GOP nomination for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by retiring Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison on July 31, 2012, in Houston.

Missouri Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” comment and the ensuing controversy marked a rare setback for the Tea Party in 2012. It’s been a banner year for the movement. Mitt Romney’s selection of Tea Party favorite Representative Paul Ryan as his running mate was a prominent success, and it wasn’t even the most important one. Numerous well-established movement conservatives like Akin have won upset victories in congressional primaries, putting the Tea Party well on its way to becoming the new core of the Republican Party.

That trend was on display recently in Texas’ Senate primary, where former state solicitor general Ted Cruz defeated Lieut. Governor David Dewhurst, a better-known, better-financed candidate who had a mass of state leaders, including Governor Rick Perry, supporting him. What Cruz and other Tea Party–backed insurgents have shown is that the movement is not just focused on taking out putative Republican moderates. They are knocking off Establishment conservative candidates with a new strategy: rather than gambling on fringe elected officials or people without any electoral experience, the Tea Party is choosing veteran candidates as its standard bearers.

A look back at the 2010 election shows how much the movement’s basic strategy has changed. While the midterm was a big moment for Tea Party supporters, it was not without its failures. Instead of nominating quality candidates in very winnable races, they chose fringe players who blew Republicans’ chances at several pivotal seats. In fact, the Tea Party may have deprived the GOP of a majority in the Senate as it worked to knock off experienced Republicans.

The nomination of Sharron Angle, a little-known Nevada state legislator, was the critical factor in Harry Reid’s successful re-election comeback. Delaware was an all but certain Republican victory until Christine O’Donnell upended Representative Michael Castle in the primary, ensuring the election of a previously doomed Democratic candidate. And in Colorado, Ken Buck’s surprise defeat of Lieut. Governor Jane Norton may have played a big role in the Democrats’ narrow Senate victory in November.

But there was one example of a different way for the Tea Party to win in 2010, one that it has clearly worked to emulate on a grand scale: Marco Rubio’s victory in Florida. A former speaker of the Florida house, Rubio was not some unknown insurgent; he was a critical part of the state’s power structure. True, he challenged a popular sitting governor in the primary, but he did not blink when faced with calls to pull out for the good of the party. Instead, he marshaled his forces and destroyed Charlie Crist not once but twice. Other ambitious officials sitting in the second tier of politics have seen the wisdom of Rubio’s approach.

This successful model shows clearly where the Tea Party is going. The Akin controversy may hark back to the mistakes of 2010 — losing Missouri’s very winnable Senate seat could cost the party its shot at taking control of the Senate — but it’s an exception. This year the Tea Party has backed candidates with significantly more experience and much stronger résumés than it did in 2010.

Akin is a six-term Congressman. Ted Cruz was the solicitor general of Texas. Richard Mourdock, who toppled longtime Indiana Senator Dick Lugar, was state treasurer. Paul Ryan is a seven-term Congressman. Not every Tea Party candidate hails from the ranks of elected officials — a veterinarian knocked off Representative Cliff Stearns in a Florida primary — but there has been a real movement by backbench elected officials to claim the mantle of the Tea Party and step up to the big time.

This trend may lead Tea Party members to question whether their insurgent movement has been co-opted by elected officials, a claim that the Tea Party has been working to dodge from its very beginning. But it is a basic compromise that almost all political groups face on their way to becoming mainstream. If that means more victories in November, it’s a compromise that a majority of self-professed Tea Party members would likely be happy to make. Though the Akin controversy shows experience is no guarantee of success, the fact that more elected officials are running under the Tea Party banner is evidence of the movement’s growing influence. The Tea Party is quickly moving toward the power center of the Republican Party.

Joshua Spivak is a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College. He writes the Recall Elections Blog.

Sort: Newest | Oldest

"Missouri Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” comment and the ensuing controversy marked a rare setback for the Tea Party in 2012."

Joshua Spivak

Could you back this claim up with any credibility?  Any credible facts?  Any credible sources that shows the Tea Party endorsed or backed Akin during the Primary in Missouri?  How about a review of who Akin's donors were, and the connection back to the Tea Party that you claim are responsible for Akin's win in the Republican primary?  Do you have that research readily available for review Mr Spivak?

Is it not true Claire McCaskill the current Senator and Democrat actually gave over a million dollars to Akin's campaign?  An under handed move to stop any of the "real" contenders from winning the Republican primary.  

Here is a link, from your own sister organization CNN, which clearly shows that Akin was NOT the "endorsed" Tea Party candidate.  Isn't that more like the truth, Mr Spivak?


"The Tea Party Express endorsed Akin's rival, former state treasurer Sarah Steelman, in Missouri's GOP primary. Steelman, who was defeated by Akin in the August 7 contest, also grabbed the coveted conservative endorsement of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin."

I am guessing you are a rather young journalist here with  Maybe you haven't learned how to source your claims when you make them yet.  You see when you put out erroneous information like this, it adds to the lies and mis-information that goes out to the public, and to your readers, Mr Spivak.  Or is that your purpose, Mr Spivak?  To deceive your readers and to make up lies?


Headline from Fox News following Akin's primary win:

"Tea Party-backed Rep. Akin wins Missouri GOP Senate primary to take on McCaskill"


I wouldn't ordinarily cite Fox News, but this is in response to LL/Rusty, and we all know that he considers Fox's reliability second only to the Bible's. Or is he going to tell us now that Fox is not a "credible source" (his words)?


After a eye twitch I'm sure he'll manage to circle the logical drain to fit whatever he think he's saying.


"Rather than gambling on fringe elected officials or people without any electoral experience, the Tea Party is choosing veteran candidates as its standard-bearers.".

Ted Cruz has never held elected office before and this was his first attempt.. Also born in Canada.


The Tea Party is destroying the Republican Party in order to save it. It's going to the heart of the party all right -- like a  heartworm.  Its ability to run experienced candidates who agree with its principles proves only that we've been electing wackos to office for way too many years.

Perhaps, after Ryan drags Romney down into ignominious defeat, the Republican estalishment will come to its senses. Or perhaps they'll all follow Olympia Snowe into oblivion.  It's really a shame Snowe didn't decide to run  as a Democrat. We might have seen a stampede of moderates to the Demos comparable to the way Southern Demos moved to the Republican party following passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Acts.

These are strange times, and strange things are happening.  Too bad the media seem mostly not to have noticed. This article is an exception. Thank you, Joshua Spivak.


Yup, there's something fundamentally wrong with the idea that the tea party will be able to attract experienced sensible civil servants when the purity test seems to be if they're right off the cliff.

The tea party brand of legislation is only popular among tea partiers - if anything congress approval have sunk to a new low, not because of the 'liberal' agenda, but because of what a majority recognize as a debilitating gridlock. People want our critters to get things done, not to play politics in time of crisis. And the tea party have forced the issue into a new bar of 'no!'.

I don't think establishment GOP thought that much about it when they decided in 2009 to make Obama a 1 term president; their courtship with the religious right left them outside power beginning 2006 and now in 2012 we'll see if people have had enough with crazy.

I think the only thing that works in their favor is the economic woes - it's almost good breeding ground for political resentment, but hopefully people also see the tea party for what it has done and that is to ensure that our economy have not been able to rebound like it should.


 Not to mention, they were supposed to all be citizens, not politicians.

Seems they turned into pols pretty quickly..


 I sincerely hope it's the end of the GOP. Time for a new party.

In all honesty, time for a new third party too.. because these guys (dems and repubs) are both owned by big business.

Third party, and getting rid of CU.

But then, i might as well wish to win the lottery too..


Yeah, there’s an epic battle between the teavangelicals and the old-school establishment R’s over who will run the party. Only one will win. Personally, I'd like to see a third party based on populism. The Occupy folks were onto something but don't know if their "descendants" will do this.