Two weeks after Election Day, Florida Congressman Allen West finally conceded defeat with a 3 a.m. Facebook missive after a preliminary recount extended his opponent’s slender lead. For Democrats, it’s a sweet victory. West, after all, was the guy who publicly proclaimed that “78 to 81” members of the Democratic caucus were card-carrying Communists. It was these sorts of McCarthyesque pronouncements that made West, a former Army colonel, the public face of the new House Tea Party faction that stormed the Capitol in 2011 promising to usher in a new era of conservative purity.
West’s main competition for the role of House Tea Party mascot, Illinois Congressman Joe Walsh, also went down to defeat. Like West, Walsh became a household name by embodying the anti-compromise Tea Party id. And like West, Walsh often acted like a jerk. He shouted down constituents, said the Democratic “game” was getting Hispanics and blacks dependent on government, had a Todd Akin moment of his own and suggested his Democratic opponent Tammy Duckworth, who lost both her legs as a helicopter pilot serving in Iraq, wasn’t a “true hero” because she talked too much about her military service. The two freshmen were partners in bombast, always good for a juicy quote or over-the-top denunciation of the other side. This played really well on Fox News and in the conservative blogosphere. Now they’re both gone.
Here’s the thing, though: neither West nor Walsh was defeated because of their clownish behavior. Controversy carried them closer to victory than they might have otherwise gotten. West garnered nearly half the votes in his newly redrawn district, outrunning Mitt Romney in two of the three counties that comprise it. That’s partly because his Tea Party stardom made him a fundraising juggernaut. He raked in more than $17 million, the most of all House members save two, one of which was Speaker John Boehner. As for Walsh, he captured 45% of the vote against a tough opponent, despite his outre remarks, a district newly gerrymandered to his detriment and a lawsuit filed by his ex-wife that accused him of stiffing her on $117,000 of unpaid child support.
As for Walsh and West’s Tea Party compatriots, they did quite well in the House. Only a tiny percentage of the 60-member House Tea Party caucus was defeated. Two of them, Akin and Denny Rehberg, lost Senate races; Maryland’s Roscoe Bartlett was defeated in a redrawn district that made him perhaps the most vulnerable Republican incumbent in the country. A pair of blustery Tea Party figureheads, Michele Bachmann and Iowa’s Steve King, escaped strong challenges. Bachmann, of course, spent the better part of her term getting facts wrong on national television. She survived on celebrity star power hard-won in Fox News green rooms, and the outsize war chest it brought her. (She was the other House member who out-raised West.) Alas, in Congress it still pays to be a clown.
But even though the vaunted Tea Party class of 2010 survived largely intact, it’s unclear how much influence they will wield in the next session of Congress. With Boehner and other Republican leaders angling for a deal that keeps the country from skidding off the fiscal cliff, as well as immigration reforms that could ameliorate the GOP’s dismal image with Hispanic voters, the Tea Party will have to decide whether to play ball or prioritize ideological purity.