Illinois Primary Reveals a Weakened Tea Party

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Mitt Romney vs. Rick Santorum was the heavyweight bout in Illinois on Tuesday night, but one of the undercards was much more interesting. Democratic redistricting forced Republicans into their first intra-party primary skirmish of 2012, a bout that laid bare divisions between the GOP’s past and future.

The race pitted Don Manzullo, a conservative 10-term congressman nicknamed ‘Mad Dog,’ against Adam Kinzinger, a telegenic 34-year-old freshman who swept into Congress as part of the 2010 wave. Like many in the 87-member freshman class, Kinzinger was elected with Tea Party support amid promises to return the party to the conservative principles abandoned by get-along, go-along Washington veterans. The twist is that in Tuesday night’s primary, the roles were reversed. Manzullo, the vet, was backed by a battery of conservative organizations, including the Tea Party primary battalion FreedomWorks and the Illinois Tea Party. Kinzinger, meanwhile, got a critical boost from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who bucked convention by endorsing the Air National Guard pilot while his allied super PAC dropped $50,000 on a pro-Kinzinger ad.

Cantor’s role in the internecine battle sparked much of the media interest, but the race was also a useful signpost of the party’s evolution in the Tea Party era. Last year, I wrote a dead-tree dual profile of two Illinois Republican freshman to illustrate the impending collision between pragmatism and purity. Joe Walsh was the Tea Party purist, and Kinzinger was the pragmatist, someone who believed in a role for government (his backing of unemployment insurance put him at odds with much of his party), eschewed polarizing rhetoric and spoke of the need to find common ground. He clearly had mixed feelings about the movement that put him in power. When I asked him why he hadn’t joined the Congressional Tea Party caucus, he replied: “I’m representing a big district. I’m a conservative, but at the same time I don’t want to pigeonhole myself. I think the Tea Party has some great ideas. Limiting government is a great thing, but I don’t necessarily want to be part of the caucus. But I’m definitely supported by them in comparison to who I ran against.”

Though Manzullo argued otherwise — in one ad he likened the freshman’s record to Nancy Pelosi’s — Kinzinger largely toed the party’s increasingly conservative line, backing fantasy legislation like Cut, Cap and Balance and railing against a debt-limit hike. Still, he took his lumps for not being pure enough. Early on he was cited by Heritage Action for America as one of the GOP freshmen least committed to cutting spending. “This is a guy who definitely strayed,” a FreedomWorks staffer told Politico. Last year was a scary time for Republicans to run afoul of conservative outside groups itching to primary transgressors as proof of their clout, and Kinzinger’s spokeswoman complained more than once when I suggested he was anything less than arch-conservative.

But with the economy slowly improving and the GOP bruising by the battles of the past year, the dynamic has shifted. On Tuesday night, Kinzinger beat Manzullo by double digits in a new district. You could view the victory as the Establishment fending off the Tea Party, or through the prism of youth over seniority. Tea Party-affiliated groups will likely again be a force in 2012, particularly in the smaller states where they thrived two years ago. But their power has attenuated as the movement’s popular support has waned. Of course, as Kinzinger knows, it helps to have the party’s heavy hitters on your side.